A couple of days ago, a new client wrote me this question (sharing now with her consent):

I believe it’s time for me to shift to the questions of what is needed in my community/spheres of influence and how I can be of service.

I’m struggling with these questions because there are so many issues with the system (e.g., ensuring that children have healthy food in schools, that farmworkers are treated with dignity, that agricultural production does not destroy ecosystems, that everyone can access and afford healthy, nourishing food, etc.).

They all feel important, but honestly, none is calling out to me as THE issue to work on.

My gifts and skills include being able to see the interconnections between issues and teaching. I love helping students see things differently.

But I’m feeling lost right now because I don’t know what to do or what next steps to take to figure out which need I should address. I’d appreciate your help identifying next steps.

Can you relate?

Sometimes, it feels like the world is on fire.

The mismatch between the world’s infinite needs and our finite time can feel heartbreaking. And, the overwhelming number of issues we could show up for creates a sense of decision-shock that brings many people to do nothing.

But you don’t want to do nothing.

So how do you choose where to focus your social change efforts in the face of so much heartache and injustice?

How do you discern what is yours to do?

There is SO much more I could say on this topic than I do here, and this is already a super long email.

But if you’re grappling with this question, I want to offer you four questions and definitions of what I mean by each.

You could consider this a lesson in Activism 101.

4 Questions to Ask to Discern Where to Show Up:

  1. What does the collective need?
  2. Where am I?
  3. What do I have to offer?
  4. What is calling to me?

Together, these form a Venn diagram. Where they come together is where we ideally show up.

Needs Venn Diagram

One: What the Collective Needs

When I refer to a “collective” in this case, I’m referring to any group of people to whom you are a part, whether or not you are aware of it, wish you were part of it, or share a common goal.

Some examples of collectives include your family, sports team, school, workplace, place of worship, municipality, or humanity.

When I use the term the collective, I am most often referring to all that is in its connectedness, including humanity, all of our non-human animal and non-animal relations, the earth itself, and the cosmos.

Every collective has needs that must be met in order to thrive. Although imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (ty bell hooks) trains us to see ourselves as isolated individuals who must fend for ourselves, the reality is that we humans are interdependent creatures who need one another.

Upon first glance, the question—What does the collective need?—can feel overwhelming and even impractical. You could spend all your time listing ways collective needs are unmet and never get to action.

So take this as less of a one-and-done question and more of a guiding question—place it in the pot on the back burner of your mind, let it percolate, and revisit it whenever you’re facing a choice with the potential of impacting others.

Two: Where You Are

In An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself & The World, Patrisse Cullors writes:

“People often ask me, ‘Where do I begin?’ I say the same thing each time. You begin where you are.”[1]

Although the challenges we face as a humanity are global, we can often leverage the most tangible changes on a local level.

When I ask you where you are, I’m inviting you to reflect on the places, organizations, and communities you’re already a part of.

When you look at where folks organize traditionally, you’ll see four sites for change again and again: schools, workplaces, places of worship, and municipalities.

For example, in my first years of activism, I organized at my university (rallying students against the war in Iraq, sweatshop procurement, and tuition hikes). After I graduated, I supported workers to organize for change at their workplaces (campaigning to win fair organizing rights for hotel workers). Many years later, I organized my place of worship (starting the Immigrant Solidarity Group at my local Quaker meeting).

For the past few years, I’ve focused my organizing efforts in my small city of Greenfield, Massachusetts: coordinating campaigns to successfully pass a Safe City Ordinance (prohibiting police and other city officials from asking people their immigration status), elect a slate of three progressive school committee members, and most recently, becoming a city councilor.

To help you discern where you are and where you might show up for social change, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions and write down what emerges:

  1. Where do I live? What changes are needed / being advocated for where you live? What is the history of the place where you live? What amends must be made where you live?[2]
  2. What organizations am I a part of? (These may include workplaces; religious centers; schools—your own, your alma mater, or your kids’ school; your town, state, or country; businesses or companies—where you shop, are a shareholder, or otherwise interact; cooperatives or associations you’re a member of; or any other organizations you interact with as a worker, owner, student, member, consumer, citizen, funder, or participant of another sort.)
  3. What communities am I a part of? (Your communities may be based around where you grew up or live; your racial or cultural identity; your gender or sexual orientation; your religion or spirituality; your profession; sports, arts, other activities; or other important aspects of your life.)
  4. What changes are people on the margins of power calling for in the places,  organizations, and communities I’m a part of?
  5. How might I show up for change in the context of the places, organizations, or communities I’m a part of?

Three: What You Have to Offer

I find it helpful to break this question down into two categories:

  1. Your social location, and
  2. Your strengths.

Let’s discuss social location first.

Your Social Location

Your social location is your proximity to systemic power based on multiple factors, including race, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, age, health, citizenship status, ethnicity, language, religion, and geographic location.

The Wheel of Privilege & Power by artist Sylvia Duckworth is a helpful tool for examining social location.

Each part of the Wheel of Privilege & Power depicts a different system of privilege and oppression. The closer to the center, the more proximal to systemic power you are.

I invite you to locate yourself in each spectrum of the Wheel of Privilege & Power now.

I invite you to now locate yourself in each spectrum of the Wheel of Privilege & Power now.

I believe that those of us who are more proximal to systemic power have a responsibility to redistribute our power and resources—money, land, time, connections, and so forth.

With that said, I invite you to ask yourself now:

  1. What is my social location?
  2. From this place, what do I have to offer? (And, yes, you can read this both as what you have that you can offer and what you have a responsibility to offer. Initially, I meant this question with the first intent, but when I read it a second time, the other intent emerged as well.)

Your Strengths

If you were socialized as a woman or otherwise on the margins of power, you might have learned at an early age to brush off compliments, downplay accomplishments, and avoid bragging. When you tell people about a success, maybe you follow it up by saying—It’s no big deal. There’s still this other thing I need to work on.

And yet…

When we acknowledge our gifts, we can more easily understand how we might show up for social change.

As Michelle Cassandra Johnson writes in Finding Refuge, “It is important to think of oneself as a medicine maker because each one of us has a gift to offer the collective.”

With that said, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your gifts now.

Take out your journal and a pen, get as comfortable as possible, and bring your attention to your body. Then, ask yourself the following questions and write down what arises:

  1. What training, credentials, expertise, abilities, skills, strengths, talents, or knowledge do I have that I’m proud of or excited about?
  2. What comes to me so naturally that I hardly think of it as a skill?
  3. What challenges have given me gifts I long to use to help others?
  4. What strengths am I excited to strengthen?

Four: What is Calling You Now

Although most people think of a calling as a specific career, a calling is more than that. I define a calling as a longing to take on a new challenge to meet a need that is larger than yourself.

A key part of this definition are the words new challenge. Callings aren’t just something we’re already good at. Even more often, we’re called to do things we do not yet know how to do.

Sometimes, when we hear a call, we’re super excited to make the journey. But just as often, we wish no one was calling.

Unwanted circumstances outside our control—illness, death, injustice—often spark callings. Burnout is a calling to learn a new way. Grief is a calling to tend to what we love. Rage is a calling to protect what we hold dear.

Your body might tell you that yes, there is work to be done here, even though another part of you really does not want to go along for the ride.

An essential practice of Radical Discernment (the methodology I teach) is learning to discern between what is a true no and what is ayes-but-part-of-me-would-rather-refuse.

To discern where life is calling you focus your social justice energy, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions and write down what arises:

  1. What issue(s) particularly pull(s) at my heart or make my blood boil?
  2. When it comes to creating social change, what ways to get involved feel most interesting or exciting?
  3. Which people, groups, or movements already working toward change do I feel excited to support or join?
  4. What requests to get involved am I hearing? How do those requests feel in my body?
  5. If you’re not getting requests, ask yourself: How might I set myself up to receive more requests? This might look like researching groups you want to support, signing up for their newsletters or social media feeds, and/or reaching out to them to ask if they need volunteers.

Where to Show Up

Finally, I invite you to take another look at the Venn diagram at the beginning of the email. Then, get curious about what possibilities live at the intersection between what the collective needs, where you are, what you can offer, and what’s calling you now.

Ask yourself: Given everything I’ve discovered, what next steps might I take toward showing up for the collective?

Write down what arises.

There are no easy answers. Instead, there is a lot of not knowing. I cannot promise how you will answer these questions.

But I can assure you that if you stay committed to asking the questions and answering with your feet—talking with others, experimenting, showing up over and over again—clarity will start to emerge.

I’d love to hear what questions or insights emerge from you. It would help me to know how these questions are working for you. So, if you feel called to do so, please feel free to click respond and let me know.

In the meantime, I’m wishing you cool drinks and long late summer weekends. I’m taking these next two weeks off to go camping in Acadia National Park in Maine with my family. (So if you do reach out and you don’t hear back from me, please know that I’ll be back in touch upon my return.

 

[1] Patrisse Cullors. An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself & The World. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2022.)

[2] https://native-land.ca/

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