My Only Vendetta, Volume 1
My Only Vendetta (Change for Better), Volume 1
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are personal, have been written on personal time, and do not represent those of my employer.
"I never brag how real I keep it, cuz it's the best secret."--Nas
In the do-gooding world, or at least the part of it I inhabit, there's a taboo we need to break. We don't speak enough of ourselves or the good we do. We've been taught that doing so is boastful, deprives the good act of meaning, and is otherwise inappropriate.
The taboo is rooted in sound principles. After all, social workers, anti-poverty lawyers, public defenders, teachers, organizers, advocates, therapists, or community health center nurses or doctors should be driven by the the importance of the work, not by a desire for glory and renown. Moreover, the weight of any public discourse should be focused on the people we serve, their lives, challenges, and dignity. This is particularly salient because the people we serve and work with are often reduced to tropes, forgotten, or remembered with little concern. So, the rare times when non-do-gooders are listening, the thinking goes, we have to center our clients. Finally, we want to avoid propagating oppression in the form of savior narratives, which often feature white men (like me) or other people with relative privilege helping people in poverty or people of color or, best, people of color in poverty to straighten out bad life choices or to accomplish something they were too weak to do on their own. Such narratives largely ignore historical context and systemic forces that have led to the present injustice, diminish the efforts and achievements of people being served, and reduce the people being served to mere objects of the do-gooder's ambition or magnanimity.
However sound these guiding principles, the taboo is based on the unimaginative assumption that it's an either/or world. But, we can speak meaningfully about clients and about ourselves. Although difficult, we can create enough space and adopt enough nuance to do so without doing our clients any disservice and without devolving into sheer vanity and ego. Indeed, it's imperative we do so to proclaim the unique combination of messages that only we can.
Our country doesn't prize justice as it ought. In fact, it's soaked in the cynicism of a culture that has wrongly fetishized the virtues of business at the expense of justice. Poor people are called lazy. In professional settings, racism, gender discrimination, and the like are euphemized as matters of bad "workplace fit" allegedly hindering morale and productivity. Do-gooders are ridiculed as being not good enough to make it in the private sector. Schools and non-profits are targeted for cuts as being inefficient or ineffective, in need of being run as a business. Activists get chided for being at a march while so-called "responsible" people are at a job. Material prosperity is seen largely as a result of virtue and work ethic, regardless of the advantages one started with. And, most perniciously, relief for the world's suffering is seen as the province of charity, corporate philanthropy, and works of religious mercy, all poor substitutes for justice.
We--the do-gooders--are the only regular witnesses to the truths of injustice apart from the people experiencing it or perpetrating it. This lends us knowledge and credibility to testify in a way that may be more persuasive to the wider world than our clients, who are unfortunately and wrongly discounted as manipulative, self-interested, overly sensitive, or unable to get over past injustice. Directly, we can make the case that a particular person or group is being disadvantaged, denied a needed societal benefit (education, health care benefits, investigation into crime they experience, etc.), targeted for state violence, or exploited.
We--the do-gooders--demonstrate the constraints of charity. For every one legal aid attorney in Arkansas, there are 18,000 people who meet the financial eligibility standards, many of them with legal issues that the legal aid organizations simply don't have the capacity to help with. Mental health therapists in community health centers frequently turn over due to high caseloads. Public defense agencies have had to stop accepting new cases because doing otherwise would cause them to commit malpractice. Teachers face overcrowded classrooms and pay money out of pocket from paltry salaries for supplies. Homeless shelters often must turn people away because of lack of beds. In all of these settings, the unimaginable need simply cannot be met by foundation grants (if your organization can get them), individual or corporate donations, or volunteers of good will, however numerous. We must let the world know the true extent of the problem.
We--the do-gooders--reveal the limits of the free market and offer an oblique critique of it. The reason we all exist is because the free market fails to provide affordable legal services, physical and mental health care, social services, and education. Highlighting these market failures can undermine the blind faith in free market principles that has led to rising inequality, devastating public disinvestment, and diminished unionization or other methods for preserving worker interests. So doing, we can also add a healthy dose of of skepticism to the rising wave of tech-infused social entrepreneurship, which proffers imaginary tales that intractable policy problems can be solved with the ingenuity of individual brilliant, market-driven, tech-based thinkers expending their life force to achieve beyond mortal constraints. Certainly, we need imagination, drive, and creativity to make progress, but that must be done in collaboration with the communities being served and the do-gooders who serve them. And, it must acknowledge realistic limitations to market-driven solutions. Simply put, there might not be a better way to educate kids than to have a well-supported teacher with a manageable number of kids and access to needed supplies and continued training. In some cases, we don't need to re-invent the wheel. We just need to actually produce it.
The persistence of poverty and injustice is not a reflection of failed do-gooding. We were never truly meant (i.e. we have never been funded enough) to end such systemic problems. Rather, we exist to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty and injustice, treating the most emergent situations, giving some minimal veneer of civilized caring to what have been harsh experiences for countless individuals in or near poverty, people in rural areas whose economies have changed faster than anyone can adapt to, various racial and ethnic groups, women, veterans, people with disabilities, and people with non-heterosexual sexual orientations and identities.
The fact that we cannot end injustice with current resources demands that we speak out to center these issues with our friends and family and, ultimately, in the wider public consciousness. In so doing, we become a testament to the belief in change and the antidote to resigned acceptance of an unjust present. Our sacrifices--lower salaries, high stress, lack of support, long hours--consecrate our commitment. We are the people in whom others find hope for a better world because, at our best, we demonstrate that there are other logics to live by apart from those of traditional success, material comforts, big money, and social prestige. With our extraordinary imaginations, we see a way to a better world for our clients amid so many obstacles. With dedication and work, we help birth this new world, even if just in incremental ways. Ours is a power that can inspire those who know the present world isn't quite right but haven't yet mustered the motivation, compassion, or commitment to change it.
Our client are often our heroes. But, so are the agents of change, whether leaders of social movements, lawyers in famous trials, or other folks from our own communities who embody less renowned greatness. Somehow, we learned about all of them. Now, it's time to make sure others know of us.