A few weeks ago, I got to spend almost an entire day with Robert Egger.
From our introduction, when he mentioned that he’d made it over to the Brown v. Board of Education site already (it was 9AM), I knew that we were really going to get along well.
The whole day was a complete reinvigoration for me, and my brain is overflowing with ideas and challenges to myself and new applications and affirmation of some things I’ve been mulling for quite a while. But there’s one particular point he made that I almost can’t stop thinking about, and that has kind of totally revolutionized how I talk about advocacy and systems change with nonprofit social service organizations.
It was a really, really great day.
One of my colleagues asked him about the starfish story, and his noted aversion to it. In reply, he talked about how, obviously, some of his work at the DC Central Kitchen involves throwing back the starfish–feeding people who are hungry, employing people who need jobs, meeting people’s urgent needs.
So where’s the social change work? Where’s the advocacy? Where’s the radical revisioning of the possibilities of tomorrow?
Answer: it’s 51% of his work. Not usually more, because, after all, people are hungry and need jobs–if the symptoms we’re addressing through our direct service work aren’t serious and worthy, then we need to be in different mission work.
But not less, either, because if the daily activities of maintaining the organization and addressing those presenting problems (but not their roots) take over, we’re (in his words) “feeding the machine”, instead of solving real systemic challenges.
So what does that mean, then, for a social worker in direct practice, or for an Executive Director of a large nonprofit organization–or anyone in between?
It means weaving consciousness-raising and systems change into your interactions with clients, so that, even as you’re handing out what they need, you’re helping them to question the conditions and structues that perpetuate their crises.
It means surrounding oneself with like-minded and totally committed colleagues, so that the organization can flourish without constantly consuming your energies.
It means, though, more than anything, checking ourselves.
We can’t ever pretend that we have the luxury of only railing against the system that causes hurt, when we have a calling to help heal those wounds, too. And we can’t ever pretend that putting on Band-Aids is enough, because then we’re, unintentionally or not, working to guarantee ourselves future work. Which is unconscionable.
I’d never pretend that finding that 49 and 51 (it’s not a balance, of course, and it can’t be) is easy. Nor would Robert, who spent hours with my fellow Kansans, helping us to think through where our nonprofit sector needs to go, and what it needs to be, to make justice rain down on our prairies.
But that sweet spot is my new mantra, and it explains the way that I see my work and, indeed, my life:
49% meeting people where they are, salving the pains caused by structures that trap people in poverty and racism and violence and desperation.
And 51% trying to tear down those same structures, bringing everything that I know about radical relationships and strategic alliances and the transformative process of helping people find their own power.
If we can get it right, I fully believe, someday I’ll become a baker. Or a farmer.
And Robert can go back to nightclubs, if he wants.
Because our work here will be done.