Last week, I got the Applied Research Center (ARC – the folks who publish colorlines.com) enewsletter. In it, the President of ARC, Rinku Sen, shared a powerful story in response to the all-too-frequent assumptions we face when explaining why work we for social change: you’re a martyr or enjoy suffering.
A couple of weeks ago I struck up a conversation with a man on the train from New York to Washington D.C. He asked me what I did, and I said it was racial justice work and described ARC. He asked me what I did before this and I told him I was a community organizer. He said, “you’ve taken a vow of poverty,” in a tone that was half admiring and half exasperated. I said that I wasn’t even close to suffering. This is an experience I often have.
Not only am I not suffering, but I’m happy. Consistently happy, every day. For the first time in my long career, and longer life, I feel like I have a clue about how to make racial justice and, more importantly, what I can contribute to that grand project. My coworkers and friends are a constant source of humor and sustaining wisdom. My family is lovely.
It turns out that it’s easy to be happy if I dwell in sufficiency. I used to feel the lack of things more than I felt their presence, which paradoxically brings more lack than anything else. I’m more likely to focus on solutions when I can see the assets, time, people, money and skills we do have, rather than only what we don’t. It takes some discipline not to slide into scarcity mode, but the notion of scarcity itself is so central to racial discrimination that living in it seems inconsistent with ARC’s, and my, mission. For me, happiness is different from complacency or triumphalism. The burn I feel for my work is more of a smolder now than the flame I had when I was younger. The fire has been tamped down some by compassion and loss. I’m okay with that. It’s less flashy, but lasts longer, and it fuels happiness instead of an ulcer. I’ll take it.
What I love about this is that she moves beyond a vague sense of “making a difference” to identifying the kind of world she wants to live in and her role/place in the larger movement towards creating that world. I love how she shares that seeing the world as a place of abundance and not scarcity makes it possible for her to work for racial justice (there is enough for all of us). And by focusing on solutions, what we have, and what we love in our professional and personal lives, those feelings of martrydom and lack—which so many people assume changemakers simply live with and accept—disappear.
Love, love, love.