So You Say You Want a Revolution

Posted by bhae09 on April 2, 2010

Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that.   Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Masoora Ali, 2009-2010 Atlas Corps Fellow, in the first of this winter's snows in Washington, D.C.

My housemate describes her wishes for her home country, one that she says has recently seen suicide bombings become, in the public mind, unavoidable.  Weddings aren’t delayed.  People more than one degree away from injury or death go about their doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping later that day.

She runs through economic, educational, religious, familial, and political reasons why young people can come to hold beliefs and commit acts that are repugnant (not to mention, she says, misguided- for lack of a stronger word); ways that her government could (and isn’t) attacking the problem; and decades-old national allegiances and betrayals that aren’t helping.

We stand there isolated in our kitchen during a D.C. snowstorm, that unmappably complex tangle just hanging in the air.

She wishes for a magic wand.

She’s an Atlas Corps Fellow quite experienced in NGO work, is building skills working with youth, and is currently grappling with how to address youth issues at home after her year here in the U.S. is up.  The kids she works with in D.C. schools are often difficult and unreachable, and they get a barrage of messages contradicting all of hers.  She’s not dismissive of issues at all; she’s willing to tackle the details, even though creative persistence in doing so might be the hardest thing she’s ever done.

Where’s a magic wand?!  We all want to change the world.  I’m a young, idealistic volunteer in the nonprofit world, and I want to charge heroically against human suffering, educational failings, environmental degradation…  name it, and I feel pressure to act.  I think most people do.  Whether by being part of movements or by developing and pioneering a creative approach to an old problem, I want to feel that my work has tangible impact.  We see injustice and want to fix things in one fell swoop.

The more I learn about the mechanics of nonprofit work and social activism, the more impatient I get.  For me, there’s a sense of urgency that’s not yet connected to enough outlets in the field I work in, and it’s not connected to any outlets when it comes to some of those other issues.  Lately I’ve been impatient about it all the time.

I wonder how often this happens to others: the energetic idealist transforms into an unhappy one-person capsule of save-the-world syndrome, with no time for fun or for real connections.  She has places to be –  direct action to take!  because there is so much to be done! –  but has very little idea what those places look like.

Then my housemate sighs and says, “I always think about revolution; I don’t know why.  Big movements…  But each person is a bubble in a sea.  We have our little worlds, and we don’t know what it is like in the other bubbles that are so many.  But how you do something is you change people’s minds.  Then they change people’s minds.  That’s how things happen.”

I think about her and the inspiring people I know.  I remember about patience, and about my limited and focusable skill set, and how supremely important face-to-face connections and friendships are.   About the things I don’t have the power to change, and then, the things a group of people in collaboration can do.  How to tackle something well.  What to start learning.  What not to feel responsible for.  How to be there for one person at a time.

Then I think about why I’ve felt so impatient.  What makes me come alive is one person’s story at a time.

Conveniently, that’s also how things happen.


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