I am tired. This week brings day after day after day of knowledge, heavy knowledge of the broken parts of our world. Information and stimuli from every corner and crevice of the nonprofit sector fills my head as I attempt to capture my thoughts with this pen.
During this week, I have learned many things.
I have learned that I am not as extroverted as I once was. In my maturity, I am content to listen more than I speak.
I have learned the importance of separating “leadership” from the “traits of a leader.”
I have learned that I compromise more often than I compete, and that all modes of conflict resolution have their place. There is no bad mode, just a mode that is mismatched to the situation.
I have learned that social justice is deeply related to social policy, ensures diverse people “have” instead of “have not,” and necessitates that we elevate the “social” in “social justice.”
I have learned of the beauty of feeling a strong black woman take up space and invite us to share in her black self.
I have learned that there is no such thing as a “free” market. The government sets the rules for this market, and through advocacy, we can change the rules.
We have been waiting for things to change, but we are the ones we have been waiting for to make those changes.
I have learned that the middle class is the center of the economic universe, and a strong middle class dictates a strong economy.
I have learned that I am not too old to climb into the Harry Potter Tree.
I have learned that fiscal policy fascinates me in the simplicity of the way it dictates behaviors: taxing those habits it wishes to discourage and providing exemptions to encourage a better way.
I have learned that over 50 million people in the United States don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and despite the volume of studies and evidence for this, the people don’t want to hear that we need more. As a society, we still think the cost of hunger is limited to what we pay in food stamps and can't understand why it isn't enough.
I have learned that transient communities have amplified and differently-defined issues, but a community of pooled resources can make a monumental impact.
I have learned that one of the first things we can do in the sector is stop creating clients out of our employees.
And underlying all of this are the three S’s: Stereotypes, Stigmas, and Storytelling.
Stereotypes are borne out of our enculturation and make up the bulk of our unconscious biases. Some stereotypes are helpful and serve to protect us from harm, but most of them result in the judgment of someone’s character. Words that arise when we see someone who is food or housing insecure include lazy, weak, dumb. They are less than us, and we can save them!
As if those harmful words aren’t enough, we create stigmas based on other, more subtle identifiers. We create stigmas around mental health issues, disabilities, and social identifiers at the very core of our fellow citizens to keep them down, to keep them in their place as less than us, the normative majority the dominant over-culture. We have created a dominance-based society over the course of many generations, and we feed society dominance by tearing down those who are different until they are nothing.
Change can happen. Change MUST happen in order to create a world where, as Dr. Carroll Watkins Ali says, we encourage others to walk in their freedom—but first we have to help them find it.
Finding our freedom lies in owning our stories, and through story, we will change the world. Stories bring perspective to those in power, because they make the issues real. Invisible biases that bring judgment and shame can be moved to freedom when we lend power to the narratives of the people we serve.
System and Institutions, Carolyn’s words in my head, are the key to moving from a place of charity to a place of justice. Stories help to bring education and perspective to those in power. Stories make them hear our words and stop believing that throwing food and housing vouchers and healthcare credits at people equates to justice for the “least” among us. This isn’t a food fight. This is, these are, people’s lives.
Charity in our society has a collection of band-aids we put on our broken systems. Charity monitors data outputs. How much food did we give, weighed in pounds? How many housing vouchers, counted in families serves? How much healthcare relief, measured in dollar amounts? Tangible outputs of the charity industry.
Justice is intangible, and justice is measured in outcomes. How many families are off welfare because they are earning a living wage? How many individuals have left the prison industrial complex and found work that keeps them from reentering the system? How many women are being paid the wage they deserve based on their skill and experience while holding leadership positions in major organizations? How many of the people we serve have crossed the threshold to successful?
Before these can happen on a large scale, we need to create policy changes that amend the systems to increase opportunities in poor communities and communities of color, to increase access to those opportunities, and to provide equity in areas of disparity through living wages and wealth equality. Without these intangible outcomes, we cannot know justice.
The first step is to listen to their stories. Once we create space for these narratives to be heard, to really be heard, the power dynamic will shift, and our world will begin to change. Listening is, after all, a radical act.