with Janee Woods
I wasn’t always an activist for social justice. There was a time when I held a plum position as an attorney at a high profile law firm. And then one time I was given a case to handle alleging racial discrimination in the workplace. I had a revelation. It was a realization that shifted my perspective: the law will usually resolve a dispute fairly, but that doesn’t always mean that justice has been served. The law is orderly, rational and relies heavily upon precedent. The legal system serves an important purpose in helping to shape our society, but there are troubling limitations when the system is based on social standards, political ideology and economic policy created primarily by moneyed white men.
I left my office that evening knowing that I wouldn’t be a corporate attorney for the rest of my career but also struggling with what I had overcome to get to where I was. I grew up poor, brown and female, so I’ve always had an acute sense of what it means to be perceived as a second class citizen, even before I understood how the status quo unjustly benefits whiteness and wealth. It was that perception that pushed me to work harder so that I could have the fancy college degree, and the job that would make me worthy to the people who had pitied me and looked down on my family.
And yet, it would also be that misconception and judgment of who I was – should or shouldn’t be – that compelled me to choose a new beginning with a fresh focus on social justice. It took some time, a couple more years, but eventually I left legal practice for a deliberative democracy nonprofit. When you accept that you cannot stay where you are, it’s not always easy to embrace a sense of freedom. For me, I felt handcuffed to my past and was afraid of making bad choices without a safety net. But I also learned that being scared and feeling exposed is not always such a bad thing. With the nerves raw under my skin, I felt a sort of clarity and catharsis. I could look back at where I’d been and also look forward to where I wanted to be. Growing up, I never felt like I had the same choices as those who were whiter, richer or more cultured. I always felt lesser because of an internalized stigma of poverty, which later made me want to hold onto a high-paying, respectable job that I knew wasn’t the best fit for the justice-seeker I wanted to become. But in finally naming out loud my personal experience with poverty and racism, I realized what makes me authentic and committed to social justice.
Everyone’s moment of revelation about how they can best serve justice and why that matters to them will be unique. But transforming our democracy will be chaotic, uncomfortable and forward looking for all of us. Social justice won’t magically appear just because we demand it, so we must take the deepest breath and dive down into the muck if we want to lift our communities.
Some guiding principles have helped balance my dedication to social justice with the practicality of having to navigate indifference or hostility toward dismantling the legacy of white supremacy, class oppression, heteronormativity and patriarchy in our society.
I believe it is a fundamental truth that all people have inherent dignity and worth. When conflict or disagreement arises, I look to see whether that truth is being honored. If it is not, then I try to see what my role can be to uphold that truth.
Hate, oppression and violence cannot exist in the presence of love. If I care genuinely for the well-being of people in my community, then I am less likely to do things that silence their voices or devalue their lives.
I need to give up some of my security, comfort, income, space or other benefits, especially ones I have because of unearned privilege. Holding onto them contributes to keeping some people down, even if I am not an active participant in keeping those people down.
I cannot achieve justice on my own and I do not know all the answers. I am only as strong as others in the movement so I must give them my support if I expect their support in return.
It is my responsibility to be vigilant and disruptive because remaining passive in the presence of oppression has the same effect as condoning the acts of the oppressor.
For me, my new beginning necessitated major life changes, because that’s what was right for me and I was ready to make a courageous leap. For others, the shift might be more subtle or introspective, and that’s okay. I am only one. You are only one. But together we are a numerous community and we hold the growing power to manifest change. There is a place for everyone who wants to belong to this better, brave world.
Where will you find your new beginning and who do you want to become?
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor to The Scenario, a blog where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.