Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why I Do This Work

My quest to explore Life-Affirming Leadership as it relates to social change efforts grounded in social justice is deeply rooted in the personal. As a third generation activist, I have been surrounded my whole life by people working for social justice who have perpetuated a culture leading to behaviors, attitudes, and systems that impose physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional costs on leaders. The negative toll this has on the people who surround them has inspired others to transform the culture and practices of social justice work.

Over the last twenty-five years, I have experienced activist colleagues who suffer from post traumatic shock syndrome, clinical depression, suicide, and other health issues related to the demands of the current model of social justice work to which they are committed. The toll for two of these bright and formidable leaders has been death. Some allow the state of their leadership exhaustion to be the downfall of their organizations or to severely diminish organizational capacity (Kofodimos, 1993; Hormann, 2007). While others, thankfully, take radically different approaches to establishing a leadership approach and life style that will serve them and their life-long commitment to social justice.

Transforming one’s own way of being, let alone that of an organization or a whole social movement culture, must be entered into with an intentionality that strengthens one’s commitment to and sustains their leadership within social justice change work. The death of two people, one who I knew personally and one I knew distantly, was a turning point for me and many colleagues in my social activist community. This is one more reason to engage in a sincere effort, seeking how we can sustain ourselves in a more healthy and holistic way as human beings, as social justice workers, as leaders.

The work of these two leaders was shaped by the historical discourse of social justice work. A history that is rich in detail about the sacrifices made to foster progress in human and civil rights. The highly acclaimed documentary “Eyes on the Prize” details how during the Civil Rights Movement people of all ages demonstrated their commitment to the Movement by jeopardizing their livelihood, education, and physical well being (Hampton, 1999). Stories about the role of collective song, prayer, marches, sit-down demonstrations, and other non-violent actions ending in mass arrests are popular, often motivating, and accurately reflect the spirit of that time.

What is not reflected in this particular example and is less often discussed, especially in public, are the negative impacts this necessary level of involvement and stress placed on individuals, families, and whole communities. The level of gender discrimination regarding power, credit for initiating successful actions, and the burden associated with low financial compensation are other critical factors rarely discussed. To this day the legacy of similar issues permeates activist culture shaping one generation of activists to the next. The persistent romanticization of the Civil Rights era has defined the approach to domestic social justice leadership for the last 50 years, shaping how emerging generations of nascent activists are “schooled” in realizing or forwarding social justice; but this is changing. My work will tell the story of those who are leading the way.

1 comment:

Chuck Bean said...

Thanks, Raquel! You write much more eloquently what I try to say to my colleagues -- and to myself. Like the flight attendants say, "Place the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can help others."