(Picasso, “Girl in the Mirror)
I believe that, generally speaking, those of us who enter the realms of social justice to become activists and advocates have good intentions. In my ten plus years as an activist and employee of numerous nonprofits, I have noticed many things about others and myself. I remember when I first started work as a domestic violence case manager for a nonprofit organization I felt, in many ways, that my success as an advocate was dependent upon the perceived successes of my clients. There was a part of me that felt like a professional failure when, for example, a client would choose to return to an abusive partner, or relapsed after a period of recovery, or didn’t meet some goal of theirs. I felt like the “success” of my client was also my success as a social justice steward.
Later when I co-founded a nonprofit, I felt even more entrenched in the success (what I considered to be measured by public and community praise) of the organization as a whole. It became part of my identity; it was and had always been my dream to start my own nonprofit and doing it I felt like I was holding this fragile baby in my arms that I was too scared to let anyone else touch for fear they would “ruin” it.
It took me many years of operating in this way in the nonprofit world and in social justice circles in which my ego was intertwined with my professional resume. My point in telling you all this is that I know, for a fact, I’m not the only social justice activist to have fallen into this trap. I have seen, and continue to watch many other activists fulfill their need for personal acceptance and approval off of the professional work they do, just as I have done. I’m not a bad person; I care deeply about social justice for reasons that do extend beyond myself and always have. I believe this to be true of others who enter the social justice activist realms as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who I would say didn’t also genuinely care about the pillars of social justice. This is a complex issue precisely because there is also much honorable intent at work here. What we each need to do, however, is be a little more mindful of the ways in which our own egos are wrapped up in our activist identities.