About this time of year, I'm often contacted by people who are interested in learning more about the kind of work that I do. I'm asked: "What was your journey towards being a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?" or "What experiences prepared you for this role?" or "What kind of courses did you take or workshops did you participate in?"
I usually rattle off the list of training -- formal and informal -- that I've both engaged in and taught; the degrees that I've earned; the types of schools where I've worked; and the assistantships and internships I have had over the past 20 years.
I hear the person on the other line quickly typing away their notes or asking questions to get a sense of similarities and differences in our experiences. They are wondering what they need to do next or what they need to learn.
As soon as I've fulfilled their appetites for the "steps", I ask if they are ready to hear the truth about the work.
"The truth about the work?" they ask.
It is true, justice work is life work. It is powerful and uplifting and life changing.
We spend a few moments talking about what the work means. We talk about the excitement of protest and the surge of adrenaline at seeing a room full of people ready to learn from you and with you. We talk about the ways in which our former students -- who walked into our offices as shy individuals -- emerge as empowered, confident action-oriented change agents ready to dismantle systemic oppression. We talk about the lives we've impacted and the "help one person breathe a little easier today" stories and the long hugs we receive after someone has felt better about their identities.
But there is also another truth about justice work.
To do justice work means that there is the truth of sadness. The truth of frustration. The truth of dampening the very fire that drives you towards this work in order to live with a system that isn't ready for you.
To do justice work requires being able to manage the hurt, sadness, frustration, anger, helplessness and hopelessness and not let it swallow you whole.
To do justice work means to be in a constant state of fight -- not flight -- and to do so in a world that prefers you didn't say anything.
To do justice work means that, in order to make it through the day, you need to figure out which parts of you you'll put forward and foresee which parts of you will be asked to remain quiet.
To do justice work means that, despite your own drive -- the same drive that gets you up in the morning and allows you to look at yourself in the mirror -- you must sometimes work with the master's tools, even when those very tools weigh down your arms and hands.
To do justice work means that you must rely on the skill of your head even when the beating of your heart can no longer be contained inside of your chest.
To do justice work means that you have to constantly think about, consider, and work with White fragility; heterosexist fears; an ableist structure; a society controlled by class; rhetoric around religious freedom, but only if it means I'm free to tell you you can't practice your religion; and only two options for gender.
To do justice work means that you must be friendly enough to be liked but fierce enough to tell people when they have hurt others.
To do justice work means that you must be public enough for others to cheer you on but not so public that you draw the wrong kind of attention.
To do justice work means that the very people and structures that ask you to move forward are the ones who tell you, "Stop."
To do justice work means you need to believe in your heart that, regardless of your age, you should be loved and honored for who you are; but that we live in a society that fears the power of what children can know.
To do justice work means that you aren't always liked.
To do justice work means that you aren't always respected.
To do justice work means you are misquoted for the agenda of others.
To do justice work means you are called all sorts of words -- the very words you are working to change.
To do justice work means you aren't always right.
And, to do justice work means that you have learned, for yourself, why you still get up the next morning and do it all again.
The other day, a group of 7th graders asked me what the two biggest things are that make me successful at my job.
"Thick skin. Soft heart."
I need a soft heart to care about everyone, everything and every aspect of what makes us loved human beings.
I need thick skin for when others disagree with those same values.
Peace and love,