Essay | Something I Heard About Changing The World

When I went to the Student of Color Conference in Santa Cruz last year, a gathering of young activists mobilizing around issues that affect minority and low-income communities, one of their great speakers told us, "be prepared to never enjoy the fruits of your labor."

It was like someone told us a secret we weren't supposed to know. It was something that was painfully true, yet familiar, something we must have known on some level but never acknowledged. I thought about the causes I had a hand in, and even more, the causes that I didn't have a hand in. I thought about the petitions I signed and didn't sign, the people holding them, the people knocking on doors and holding rallies and making movements. There's so much of it out there in the community and yet there's that universal element of it. All of us who care about something more than we are expected to, will likely never get to see the fruits of our labor.

Activism is hard. Activism is draining, tiresome, frustrating, and consuming. It is also the only way we are ever going to get out of this mess.

Asking a person to care is easy. It's harmless, and requires a slight flip of a switch in our brain. Ask us to do something about it, other than feel some vague sense of empathy, well, that's a tall order. Even as privileged students, we think that our days are full enough; between the balancing act of our social lives and our constant academic onslaught, who has time to be responsible for a political cause? Deciding to be an activist is a scary idea. It's time and energy, yes, but it's also keeping it at the forefront of your mind. It's living with the burden of knowing that something is very wrong and even as you throw pebbles at it, you'll likely never get to see the end of it. It's Atlas and the world.

"Be prepared to never see the fruits of your labor." It started to cast a shadow of futility over the things I wanted to change. I never expected instant gratification - although that would've been nice - but I had never faced facts. The speaker, a seasoned veteran of community organizing and fighting the fight, was telling me from a position of experience that there is no moment of exhale. There will be no satisfaction, only burdens.

It's not like it turned me off of activism, though. Once its got you, once you've decided to take that dive, you don't really get out. The switch only goes one way.

I hesitate (and cringe) to use the word "activist" when referring to myself. I know activists. I've worked with them. I am friends with them. I greatly admire the work they do, and, yes, on many occasions I have joined them. But, and I think this is a boat that we are all warily swaying in, we have our tunnel vision of issues. We have the things we care about most and work on them. You, well, you might care a whole lot about Darfur, but when one of the guys from "Coalition to Impeach President Fernandez and Free the Dominican Republic," asks you to attend his meetings, you might care. You might sympathize. But you end up sitting at home because, really, how much more room do you have on your mind? You just signed up to go to a Prison Industrial Complex workshop.

It's always a difficult thing that we all have to negotiate. We're a type of person that has committed to caring, but we have to be willfully selective of where we dedicate our whole energies to. Even the most ideal of us know we cannot save the entire world all at once. In that way, even the most dedicated organizers are just like everyone else who puts on their blinders. We can care because caring is free, but we can't always do something about it -- and when we can, it will feel like harvest time is always out of reach.