One of the dominant features of 21st century life is the tyranny of believing we have to have a huge impact in order for our activism to matter. Our society’s specific metric of what constitutes “success” along with the omnipresent expectations of social media makes it difficult to believe in the value and power of doing good and doing well on a small(er) scale. Yet it is exactly that, the impact of each individual action that creates substantive and sustainable change.
Your book didn’t make the best seller lists? Why did you even bother writing it? You don’t have 100,000 followers on social media? Well, clearly you’re not an “influencer”. We keep subscribing to this patriarchal, capitalistic, hierarchical value system that tells us that if our impact isn’t enormous there’s really no point in what we’re doing.
We are told, in ways overt and subtle, that the only way to matter is to matter on a huge stage. Obviously not everyone buys this; there are people who do their social justice work on a small scale every day. But how many people don’t even start, or give up, because they feel like what they have to contribute can’t possibly matter?
We live in a society where we so value stardom that we forget the importance of the small, consistent action. Does the food pantry that regularly feeds families in your neighborhood matter less than the author whose antiracism book sits on the shelves of hundreds of thousands of people? Does the behind the scenes work to get voters to the polls matter less than the speech on the mall in Washington?
Rather than perpetually comparing these things why don’t we look at the world around us, assess what we can do, and just live our lives doing the things that are ours to do without comparison and without judgement? Maybe it’s that we have forgotten that it’s more important to take action than credit.
Here’s what I think, I suggest we look at our engagement with social justice completely differently. Rather than fixating on having a big impact what if we started with deciding what we want to change and then working from there? It’s only when we know where our focus is and have figured out at least how to start that we can think about expanding our impact.
What does expanding our impact even look like? Maybe it isn’t about bigger but about deeper. Maybe expanding our impact is about making a more significant difference within our area of influence. For example, not only providing food to hungry families but teaching them about healthier eating so that they avoid some of the issues that come with poor nutrition. If there weren’t structural obstacles to Black and brown people accessing healthy food would we still be seeing the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on these communities?
What if we made a commitment to the work rather than the fruits of the work?
You might be saying, “Well, of course” but think about it. We are rewarded for impact in the sense of how many people we reach rather than how deeply we reach them. That means that we often talk ourselves out of doing what we were thinking of doing because of the scope of what we can do. “It’s too small, it won’t matter, I can’t help enough people”.
But if you were the person in need of help wouldn’t you want the help? Even if you were the only person someone helped wouldn’t that be meaningful to you?
Impact is wonderful and I, as much as the next person, want to make an impact on the world through my work and my life. But I remind myself that rarely do we get to see the true impact of our actions, and honestly that’s putting our focus in the wrong place. We have to be willing to take satisfaction in the doing of the work for its own sake. For our own sake.
So, whatever your thing is, do it. If you haven’t found it yet, find something. If it’s not quite right trust that, by doing something, you’ll find your way to your thing – and you’ll make a difference along the way, no matter the scale.
P.S. If you're not already a follower of my podcast I invite you to have a listen to my most recent episode. It's a fascinating conversation with attorney Christopher Brown, who did what is rarely achieved, won a qualified immunity case against the police. Brown tells a story that is both horrifying and deeply important as America struggles with bringing justice and equity to policing.
You can find it here.: