Last month, I joined a community organizing group here in Charlottesville. I did it because having a pet cause no longer feels like enough, because people in this town struggle to fit in, to get by, to get the helping hand they need, and I just might be able to make a difference.
Don’t get me wrong. I think talking about justice work is good. I absolutely believe that the online community of ethical consumers and activists largely have committed and focused conversation to thank for their influence, and that sharing brands and causes with you all here does ignite change. You can feel the energy in the ethical living community. People are talking about globalization, overconsumption, the limits of free trade, and the shortcomings of certain fair trade models. They’re acknowledging that work needs to be done, that new policies need to be implemented, and that the system is unsustainable.
The only problem is that I can’t be the one to implement those policies. And even if I could, I’m likely not the best one for the job. At some point, we have to acknowledge what we cannot do. I can keep buying responsibly, doing research, and sharing what I learn with others, but I can’t (reasonably) meet face to face with leaders and laborers in Bangladesh or Guatemala. I can’t be the one who offers a shoulder to cry on.
This is what I can do: I can help people here. People I can see. People who have immediate needs to solve and just need a few allies to stand with them. I can be physically present, host house meetings, and attend rallies. I can look people in the eye, read the room, and offer hot tea and tissues, or a maybe just a hug. I can show up, one of many in a giant body of people who care.
Being physically present with people changes things. How do we plead or sympathize, how do we understand the complicated dynamics of a life, without being in the same room? How do we ask hard questions with confidence without the benefit of body language? I can tell you all my secrets on the internet, but will I ever fully know you without knowing what it feel like to be in your presence?
There are issues to resolve the world over and we have a role to play in discovering and implementing solutions. But there are people within walking distance of your home, school, or workplace who have issues to resolve, too. You don’t have to make a choice between pursuing justice here or abroad, but know that “your voice” might be best cultivated by physically using it.
I joined a community organizing group because I’m inspired by the work of my friends in social work, and I did it because I met a young man on the streets of Chicago in June who needed someone local to advocate for him. I couldn’t help him, but I can help someone with similar struggles here. It’s small, slow work, but it matters. You can’t do everything, but you can always do something.