Live Most Fully
Over the two months I spent working with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN), and North Carolina Conservation Network (NCCN), I learned many important lessons: different strategies of advocating for social change including when to bring legal action and how these different actions may impact stakeholders, ways to build meaningful collaborations among organizations with different missions and approaches, methods for coalition building and community organizing, tactics to get governments to take action, and so many more. But by far the most important lesson I take with me is one I thought I was already familiar with but now realize I didn’t truly understand how to put it into practice. I learned from working alongside strong and resilient advocates that taking care of yourself emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually is absolutely a prerequisite to being able to take part in sustained efforts – “the work” as some call it – for creating social change.
The work of social change can often times be exhausting. Contending with deeply entrenched problems that are manifestations of historical systems of oppression demands intellectual engagement and emotional labor that can often be overwhelming, especially in this political climate. The fatigue is not entirely physical and mental but also emotional, psychological, and spiritual. As a student at Duke, I’ve experienced this fatigue before but I couldn’t quite articulate what was going on beyond mental and physical fatigue much less how to deal with it. So how can I meaningfully engage with “the work” without these moments of exhaustion?
Over the course of the summer, I realized that I made this judgement about whether or not I have been truly doing “the work” by whether I am fatigued afterwards. But by working alongside people who have experienced many injustices and yet seem resilient in that they keep doing the work, I was finally able to acknowledge how much the work can impact personal wellbeing and the importance of taking care of all of these aspects as crucial to being able to engage with issues of environmental justice as a career, which is what I hope to do.
This summer I was surrounded by role models who taught me that being intentional about my wellbeing and building supportive community is not just possible but attainable and necessary for being able to work for social change without burning myself out. From my first day at the NCEJN when I was warmly greeted and welcomed by the groups, I’ve observed the pure happiness, genuine care, and the love the people had for one another and the care they take of themselves. Even in the communities I visited, I experienced the joyful and loving spirit people carry with them that was not only infectious but healing. Community members who live next to lagoons filled with hog waste and lakes contaminated with toxic waste are fighting for their health and the health of their families—for life itself—and yet still find the time for supporting one another so they can all continue to do “the work.” These were people who made time for family, friends, and hobbies and when they came together they shared stories about their histories and celebrated their culture. They didn’t let themselves forget that we are more than our battles. And not forgetting that is especially important for people of color who are the most likely to experience environmental injustices. For instance, society often focuses solely on the institutions of slavery or Jim Crow laws and black efforts to mobilize in the civil rights movement. But if you ask a group of black people what we like most about being black, we will tell you about the culture, the food, the music, the dancing, the relationships, family, literature, film, performance, fellowship, and so much more that derives from a far more beautiful history that that commonly depicted. Watching the advocates and community members prioritize these aspects of life brought levity and joy and was transformative for me.
The lessons I learned are ones I hope to begin putting into practice in my last year at Duke and will continue in my career to come. While “the work” of social change is something that I truly care about and am committed to doing, I will be balancing it by spending time with friends and family, hiking, playing competitive basketball or soccer, watching a movie or TV show, or enjoying a good meal. These are things that seem simple but it’s important that I make time for it so that I can be present when it comes time for the work.
Though I don’t necessarily agree with his views, the late author and environmentalist Edward Abbey left us with some reassuring advice that I’ve taken the liberty of modifying for those who advocate for environmental justice in particular:
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader… Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the people and the environment; it is even more important to enjoy what we bring. While you can. While we’re still here. So get out there and dance and sing and hang out with your friends, love, laugh, and celebrate the cultures, climb the mountains, savor the foods, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Be unapologetically you, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our rivals, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by dollar signs. I promise you this; You will live most fully.”