Social Justice and My Struggle and Me

We were driving home one evening when Isabelle turned her head and said to me, “How can we help end racism in our community?” I never have an answer for questions like this and I don’t know if a definite solution can be neatly packed into a cluster of words that ends with a period. Any attempt to pull that off strikes me as flimsy and cheap.

Like Isabelle, there are questions that percolate in me. They float and float, but never reach the shore. 

Can we help end racism? Can we eradicate evils that exist in the hearts of people? Is there a solution to the homelessness crisis in America? Does my vote really matter? How do we help people transition from prison back into society? What does it look like to offer joy and instill confidence in people with intellectual disabilities? How important is my concern with global issues? In what ways can I stand against the underpayment, long hours, and child slavery that became a means to the clothes on my back? 

If you have a pulse you’ve also had a front row seat to the socio-political, cultural, and economic happenings domestically and abroad. Whether things are unraveling more or we’re just more exposed or both, the times are crying out for people to speak for the voiceless and help the helpless. For words to come rushing through where there has been silence, for every able hand to overthrow the heavy injustices. 

What I mean to lay bare is no solution I’ve discovered, but the conflict. One that I’ve had to uncompromisingly admit to myself and now to you, reader: That the more issues arise the more I turn my head, the more clamours the voices become the more I grow silent, the more help that’s needed the more I’m apt to do nothing. 

Shortly after the inauguration several protest marches took place across the country. Intrigued,  followed along through social media until stumbling on a post of someone marching who contended this: If you thought back to the peace marches of ‘63 or the feminist protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and wondered what you might have done, look at what you’re doing now. Because that’s exactly what you would have done. 

Immediately, I closed my phone in frustration both because I knew this person was right and because I believed they were wrong and I was pitted between the two. Can one person objectively make that claim, that if you don’t do anything now you wouldn’t have done anything then and are likely to do nothing at all? Would my full intent to participate be solely for the cause, or to share on social media that I was there at all? Maybe those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Still, the problem with guilt-tripping people is you embarrass those who don’t know how to act and you shame those who do know but lack the courage to.  

It’s hard to tell these days who we are when we’re not sharing, when the filters are gone, when there’s no march to participate in at all. Our parents’ generation wasn’t like this. They didn’t have an apparatus to share their involvement much less get “likes” for working for a cause. They just got involved, unworried about sharing that with a wider audience. In this way, my parents have been an example for me.

When my sister and I were still very young and living overseas, my dad took ownership over connecting the local, Italian Special Olympics with the base’s Special Olympics group to organize events. From field days, to bowling, to basketball tournaments the local Italian youth would come onto the base for these all-day events. Italian and American parents of the participants and volunteers gathered to help set up and tear down the event, cheer on the participants, and serve food.

When my dad first became involved he asked us if we wanted to come volunteer with him. Like so many kids are—and so many adults still—we were intimidated and uncomfortable with what we didn’t know. At least a few events passed by before we accepted his invitation. When we finally did, we helped with a field day which took place at the base’s soccer field surrounded by a track. We asked our dad what we could do, and he told us that even if we cheered and clappled for the participants as they ran their relays, that would go a long way. So we did just that. We stood with the parents and volunteers and cheered and clapped as loud and as long as we could. Sometimes we even ran alongside them on the track until they crossed the finish line.

Then something happened that I’ll never forget: Everyone who crossed the finish line cheered. It didn’t matter who finished first or fifth, everyone was elated and high-fiving. Standing in the midst of the celebration was risky business; anyone might grab you and hug you with everything they could. There were even a couple notorious butt-pinchers.

“Why is everyone celebrating, even though some of them came in last place?” I asked my dad. “That doesn’t matter to them,” he said, “they’re just happy to be here and participate.” We volunteered at several events after that.

If this is what I was exposed to in my childhood, when did I become so withdrawn? When did I start closing my blinds to the outside world, to people who look and think differently, and building a rampart around my heart? Such changes in a person are subtle and gradual, to be sure, and I remember the moment that positioned my thinking that participation in serving the marginalized was reserved for some moral elitist club.

When I was in college I volunteered myself to some classmates who were trying to launch an initiative to raise awareness for child slavery. Although I was eager to get involved and help however I could, one of the founding members said to me, “That’s great, but I just don’t know what you’d really do.” It seemed to me then that I needed to be able to offer an ability or specialized talent to stand up for the vulnerable, that my two hands and willingness weren’t enough. I was turned away.

One of the great gifts of this life is the sense of purpose one receives when helping their fellow human. And one of the great tragedies is when one allows their fellow human to take that purpose from them or dictate it through superiority or guilt. 

It’s no secret in our society that the people who talk the loudest get the most attention. Since we’re all looking for someone to follow, we gravitate toward the noise even if the people behind it aren’t saying much of anything. Meanwhile, we try to find our voice amidst the clamor, discovering we became mute somewhere along the way. In time not only do we lose our voices, we lose the familiarity of their sound. Eventually we lose our hearing altogether. 

The loss of hearing not only cuts out our voices, but the voices of the marginalized. Few of them can shout. They’re pushing out whispers at best. The less we hear the less we understand. And the less we understand the more likely we are to lash out in anger or retreat in fear. I’m no stranger to this.

Through my withdrawl I have had to come to terms with the truth: I’ve traded my sight for comfort, my voice for the status quo. The exchange rate has been killing me. I need a new economy. 

On that day during that drive home with Isabelle, my knee-jerk reaction was to come up with some large, extraordinary solution. That’s what we seem to gravitate towards and what holds our attention. Yet that’s the very thing that overwhelms me, that if I’m not moving to Africa or starting a nonprofit or launching something I refer to as a movement with a catchy hashtag then I’m not doing much of anything and anything I do attempt is insignificant. This has festered in me until I bought in. That nothing I’ve ever participated in—feeding the homeless, organizing food banks, building a playground for children—has mattered. Leave that to other people. Those with more experience. A louder voice. A larger platform. Stay quiet. Keep your hands behind your back. 

Enough already.

Instead of an extraordinary solution, I thought of the often quoted Mother Teresa, who stated that not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love. And that’s what I offered to Isabelle: maybe it starts with us and we have to start small. Forgiveness and reconciliation and healing begins in us and our home and spreads out from there. First to our neighborhood and city, and then beyond. There is still great need in small, untelevised places. 

So this is my new currency: small things done in small places with great love. It might not be shiny or spectacular, but for me, right now, it’s the best I have to strike match after match against the darkness. As the light grows and momentum builds I anticipate that, little by little, hope and courage—beginning with my own—will come out of hiding.

Jon AleixoComment