When I’m trying to really get to know someone, I always ask why they do what they do. If they’re someone with the privilege to choose, the response can tell me a lot about their values and background. Up until recently, I thought I had a good answer. When folks throw the question back at me, I usually answer something along the lines of “As a person of color, I see the role race plays in determining people’s lives. I work on policy to change that.”
For all this time I’ve been answering “the why” to racial justice, but never the policy part. People choose to combat racism in tons of ways, like art, organizing, philanthropy, teaching, etc. To be honest, I just assumed that policy was a natural fit for me because I don’t consider myself inherently gifted at anything in particular. For the life of me I have no creative proclivities, and certainly don’t have the temperament or social skills for “front line” work, like counselors working with immigrants facing deportation. Policy is really not much more than memorizing archaic rules, and learning how to articulate solutions in a certain way. … or so I thought.
A few weeks ago I met with my therapist, who is very much a non-justice oriented white guy. We’ve been talking about me setting stronger boundaries between my work life and “life life” (What’s that? Just kidding, but seriously, I suck at it) and I was trying to explain that my work is deeply personal. I can’t not feel pain when I read about black men murdered by police or when I see young brown girls standing on corners late in the night. Scholars call this phenomenon linked fate. I like to think about it through a concept I learned about studying abroad in South Africa called ubuntu, which translates loosely to “I am, because you are, because we are.” I don’t do this work because I’m a nice person or because I want to “give back,” but because I understand that pain (psychological, physical, or otherwise) can have ripple effects. It can spread to others, and it can stay with people. When that pain becomes part of you, changing what you fear, how you show up and understand the world, you have what is known as trauma.
From slavery to Jim Crow to Trump’s America, people of color have endured generations of trauma — via policy might I add — to the point where we normalize it, making healing all the more difficult. When I feel that weight, my work not only gives me a vessel to channel my energy into but an opportunity to undo (or at the very least mitigate) that trauma on a widespread level. Explaining why boundaries are hard for me made me realize that policy is a form of healing not just myself, but my people.
It’s funny. Before this mini-breakthrough, I thought that the “why do you do what you do” question allowed me to learn about others, but it really ended up teaching me more about myself than anyone else. Looks like I still have some more unpacking to do.
Danielle Beavers is Greenlining’s Diversity and Inclusion Director. Follow her on Twitter.