It’s been a while since I’ve written anything leisurely, and you know what? I completely and unreservedly blame this dissertation. For the past few weeks, it’s been academic writing, research, statistics, and analysis *every day* for as long as I physically and possibly can. On the bright side, I am happy to share that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and closer. I’m starting to squint, reaching around aimlessly looking for the sunglasses I dropped on the floor. Come April, I’ll finally be finished with this dissertation: “The Role of Care Setting and Quality of Care in Understanding the Psychosocial Well-being of Orphaned and Separated Children in Five Low- and Middle-Income Countries”
On my way back from Colombia to Asheville at the end of January, I remember being so excited, inspired, and anxious to dive into civic engagement and the local activist community. I was ready to get politically involved at so many levels and show up for everyone who needed solidarity.
Then, my dissertation happened.
There were so many times when I felt guilty for being too busy with schoolwork. I criticized myself for not showing up enough, locally, or being loud enough, politically. I was conflicted about how I managed my time and was worried that people didn’t think I cared enough. I also secretly worried that I’d be overextending myself if I committed to more causes (compassion fatigue is real, y’all).
And then I read this article, perhaps when I needed to most. To put it simply, it reminded me of the important things.
“You can’t show up to every march and donate to every cause. You can’t write treatises on every issue and argue with every Trump supporter on your Facebook page. If you want to be effective on anything, pick an issue or two that matter most to you and fight for them. Let the others go.
Important caveat: you shouldn’t actively undermine other people’s issues. Just because you aren’t personally excited about something doesn’t mean it’s not important. The only way this works is if lots of people focus on lots of different issues, with the result that all the important stuff gets covered. So don’t be in the business of trying to convince people to switch their allegiance from one issue to another. Don’t tell people to stop talking about racism because climate change is more important, or that health care can wait because we have to focus on LGBTQ rights. It’s all important. The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else.
By the same token, don’t allow yourself to be shamed for being new to the game. [For veteran activists], do not engage in activist one-upmanship, and don’t allow yourself to be shamed for not being fully briefed and up to date on everything or for not making someone else’s number one issue yours as well. That is a demand for emotional labor from you, and you do not have to give it. Sure, retweet and share on Facebook about your peripheral issues, but focus your real energy on the things you care about most. I will do the same for my different but complementary issues, and that’s how the work gets done.”
And that’s the truth. It’s what I’ve always believed, and I just needed a reminder. Yes– the only way this works is if lots of people focus on lots of different issues. The only way this works is if we don’t shame one another for our choice in social justice issues. Luckily, I just needed a moment of clarity to remember that I already know the issues that speak to me. I already know just how I can use my talents to contribute most effectively. And just as important, I need to practice a little self-love and be a little less hard on myself when I can’t show up for every cause.
And that’s when I realized that all of this time I’ve spent working on my dissertation has actually been an act of resistance to fight oppression, just in a different and unexpected way. All of these days of writing and research and policy recommendations: they’re all acts of resistance that are contributing to social justice. They use my current and natural talents and strengths. Every day, I am fighting for orphaned children’s rights and mental health on the research and policy level.
Duh. And then I realized the other obvious way I’m called to contribute to social justice. My humanitarian photography.
February inexplicably became an important turning point for my humanitarian photography. I revamped my website and completed my portfolio to include all of the humanitarian photography work I did in Vietnam. And then I got to work with three amazing local humanitarian and social justice organizations and programs and help them with their visual storytelling– essentially, help these changemakers tell stories that really matter.
And that’s my story of February 2017. It was a humbling turning point in clarity and a month-long reminder of what I’m supposed to do. And this March, you better believe I’m going to continue these acts of resistance, only this time with more confidence and assertiveness.