Ignorance and hatred wreak havoc on the world. The antidote to antipathy is empathy. When I was young, my mom told me stories of Jewish history, from ancient escapes from slavery to the modern catastrophe of the Holocaust. She also often recounted to me narratives on civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests she supported in her youth, and engaged me politically in letter writing activities, sent to government figures to support causes relevant to environmental, animal, and human rights. My earliest letter memory is of being five years old, writing to the first George Bush to save the dolphins (I'm sure there must have been more to it, hah); next were letters written in support for environmental protection laws defending the preservation of public land, and later, practices of signing petitions for and donating a small bit of accumulated babysitting funds to Amnesty International. The reduce, reuse, recycle campaigns—along with Captain Planet— also had an impact on joint efforts between a few kids in our neighborhood to clean up roadside pollution around the neighborhood. After years of receiving monthly inserts for National Geographic’s Wildlife Factfiles and encouragement to be involved in animal and environmental protection, it's a puzzle that anyone was surprised at my journey towards full vegetarian habits at a young age. All of this held the common theme in my mind of triumph over destructive forces, a way to add to hope, a responsibility to do one’s part for change.
Every story my mom relayed made it seem like there was a trajectory towards a world without prejudice, one that had seen true evil and could not repeat it. My mom was not always optimistic; Hitler’s reign was a horrific thing that could happen again if we weren't vigilant in remembering and embodying love—but the parts of the stories where the women’s rights and civil rights protests led to transformed conditions from removals of oppressive practice to increased inclusion had always equally stood out to me. Perhaps this is a consequence of our generations—in the 60s and the 90s—being given the idea that individual efforts combined together was all that was necessary to stop oppression, violence, and pollution.
This initial upbringing led me to later spending two years taking journalism classes that overlapped with writing for my high school newspaper—for which I was awarded the title, “Most Likely To Cause An Uproar,” due to my (no longer quite so optimistic, but very progressive—pacifist, pro-privacy, anti-prohibition) editorials on the war in the Middle East, The Patriot Act, the drug war, and the dress code. During high school I also volunteered multiple years to read to kids in elementary schools across Cobb County for Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess)’s birthday week—an event prepped for during sessions of cat-in-the-hat costume making and book choice meetings each spring. After my mom passed away, my new stepfamily likewise prioritized some rituals of helping and giving to strangers; around Christmas, we would buy and deliver gifts to families struggling to bring Santa to their kids for the holiday season. I truly bought into the idea that if everyone on the ground level just did better, we could live in a better world.
Later, when I first moved to Atlanta, I was excited to find Hands On Atlanta, a network for volunteer opportunities—an easy way to sign up online to do good work, no particular religious affiliation required. I am thankful to have helped out on rare occasions via the HOA network as well as via other opportunities found at the ground level of select non-profits—mostly in seasonal or volunteer positions, but all holding value of growth and the opportunity to glimpse, at least a little bit, the inside of the helping sector.
At Café 458, our packing boxes and giving out meals ensured that people without means to feed themselves would not go hungry; years later in a similar opportunity, I joined with Young People Matter's outreach and shelter assistance campaigns also engaged in direct help of homeless individuals (primarily youth) via necessity-filled bookbag and coat giveaways. Further, I was grateful to have supported local arts in a tiny way (and, admittedly, for the received free admission ticket) when volunteering as an unpaid usher at Horizon theater, and to have helped in a small way to bring the stories of suffering individuals that may otherwise not have been heard to the public during a remote internship with the Incarcerated Voices Project. Beyond these occasional volunteer activities I tried to fit in as best as I could between demands of life, as a paid canvasser, I also did work with Environment Georgia and the local Democratic Party of Georgia for two summers. As an instructor of record for freshmen ‘student success’ orientation classes during a semester when I simultaneously enrolled in a graduate seminar in non-profit studies to fulfill the need for minimum credits in a meaningful way, I directed classes over to, and when possible, joined students in, service learning requirements for the Atlanta Food Bank.
At each of these events, I felt good giving back; like it was the natural thing to do. But I also, increasingly over time, felt like these feel good attempts to make things good through individual efforts, still didn’t address the main issues of why people needed help to begin with—a topic I’ve gained more familiarity with than I would like for a lifetime. Indeed, due to financial, physical health, mental health, and life navigation difficulties, I often oscillated between the position of privileged just enough to occasionally help others to the position of suffering in need and that itself was a difficult thing to grasp.
All of these difficulties personally faced take away from the energies I feel like I should be giving to the world. Simultaneously, however, they give a deepening of my perspective on what it means to do good in the world. To do good is to do good in the corner of the world we can reach, yes—but therein lies the rub. If there were no unfortunate situations built in as natural consequence to our systemic practices to begin with, there would be no charity to donate to, or causes to volunteer time to. If we valued doing good the way we valued earning profit, volunteers would be paid. If we valued doing good over the value of profit, we’d make things good for all, instead of just making things profitable for some. This is essential to rectifying injustice, minimizing harm, and addressing suffering.
I’m not denying the power people have on the ground to turn crummy situations into opportunities for ingenuity in social solutions. That being said, it’s so not enough. A macro-level view of the catastrophic events faced today reveals that the damage a small subset of humans cause to the world may outweigh the collective sum of individual efforts from those with less economic, political, and social power. It’s not enough to change ourselves. Donating time and energy to directly help people now is great—but it’s necessary to change the systems we operate in. We can collaborate on making a livable world for all, or we can end up burnt pawns in plans for a wealthy paradise we’re not invited to, all efforts to be good as individuals falling short of stopping causes catapulting us into catastrophe. We must do good personally, organizationally, and politically, or we’re just continually refilling a pool instead of stopping the leak that drains it.