Starting where people are: When Life Interrupts Activism

Before I became a mom, virtually nothing came in the way of my work. For years, I rarely noticed when the clock changed to 5PM. If I was in the office, instead of in someone’s home recruiting new leaders or in a gymnasium somewhere facilitating a public meeting, or in a hotel in Washington, DC, I’d eventually notice, around 7PM or so, that it had gotten quiet, and take off my shoes and run the high-volume copies of flyers that I didn’t want to annoy my coworkers with during the day. I’d come home when I was too exhausted to think anymore, around 11PM, give my husband a big hug (and, yes, eat the dinner he’d made me), go to bed, and get up to do it again the next day.

But this post isn’t about how unhealthy that may have been, or what it says about organizational capacity, but, instead, about what we can’t see, or even feel, when we’re approaching our work like that.

Because, the truth is, I often forgot the social work maxim to “begin where the client is.”

I was a lot more focused on getting them where I needed them to be: conscious of the need for collective action, committed to our strategy for social change, at the congressional forum with the 30 people they promised to turn out…

I don’t apologize for holding fast to the belief that EVERYONE can raise his or her own voice against the injustices encroaching on their lives.

I believed that then, and I saw tremendous leadership from single moms with 4 kids, people with first-grade educations, and men working 3 jobs and teaching catechism classes on the side.

And I believe it now.

But I must have some regrets about how unsympathetic I was, at times, to the realities of people’s lives, because I highlighted almost every paragraph in an essay by Joshua Levy in Rebooting America. He writes about trying to teach politically-conscious blogging in an English-as-a-Second-Language class, and of being frustrated and a bit perplexed when his students’ main priority was figuring out whether the technology he was teaching them could make it cheaper to stay in touch with their families around the world.

Day after day, he would talk enthusiastically about civic engagement and about English as a tool for empowerment, and he’d hear in return anxieties about family members, economic concerns, and the pressures of life for low-income immigrants rather alone in a huge, foreign city.

Most sobering, for him and for me, in retrospect, is that, eventually, maybe when they sensed that he wasn’t really listening, or maybe when they felt bad for being such an obvious disappointment to this fired-up volunteer teacher, they quit talking. And, so, they went through the motions of what he wanted them to do, in an empty way that meant little to him and even less to them.

He describes it as reality getting in the way of the “web-induced political consciousness I was trying so hard to impress upon my students”, and he concludes his essay with his own reflection that the power of digital technology to reinvigorate democracy will be incomplete and unfulfilled, to him, until his students can participate in a meaningful way. Filling in what he doesn’t say, from my own experience, this means not just creating mechanisms that facilitate participation in user-friendly ways for people with unpredictable lives, but also the creation of a social environment that lifts some of those same pressures, so that so many people aren’t having to swim so fast upstream.

And, so, for this I do apologize: I not only failed to start where my clients were, but I sometimes didn’t even remember to really find out.

It’s an apology to all of the mothers who couldn’t come because their children needed to be home in bed, to all of the people who really couldn’t get off work, to all of the teenagers who needed to study, and all of the fathers who were just too tired, to everyone without transportation, to those who were too sick or anxious or frightened…to everyone who is a human being just as worthy of dignity and respect as anyone else, even if they really didn’t care about our campaign nearly as much as I thought they should…

I get it.

For the individual, life can get in the way of movements for social change. That’s why they’re movements, and that’s why it takes the many.

But there will be a place for you when you’re ready.

Because it won’t be a real revolution until you have a chance to be in it.

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4 responses to “Starting where people are: When Life Interrupts Activism

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. Pingback: Weekend Links 8 | Fighting Monsters

  3. Love this post and the rest of your blog. Slowly working my way through your archives, and I’m really learning a lot. Thank you for writing!

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