Love as a Force for Social Justice

Poverty. Death. Illness. Repression. Injustice.  These are the issues of global health. It is what we confront, among a laundry list of others, as a part of our daily work and as a part of our mission.

Behind all of that is such beauty and joy and resilience…it is breathtaking at times!  I remember being at a hospital in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic. A child who was orphaned due to Ebola had been admitted. She had been found after being alone for god knows how long.  She had illness on top of illness; she was skin and bones.

Everything about what happened next, though, was a story of community and care. I saw a nurse at the hospital draw his own blood to donate to her. Two women unofficially adopted her and ensured that she was fed, diapered, clothed.  She steadily made progress that some would call miraculous.  And right before I left, the sign of her true recovery was that she led the ward, providers, visitors, and patients alike, in a jubilant dance party!

The love behind each and every action in this story is motivating. From the community health worker who found her and overcame his fear to bring her to the hospital. To the hospital workers who stayed in their roles when so many others fled out of fear.  To the nurse who donated his blood. To the women who gave of their time and resources.

The great Ann Firth Murray at Stamford University is renowned for her work in global health, in particular, she was the founder of the Global Fund for Women.  In her long career, she has born witness to tremendous suffering and injustice.  She developed a course called Love as a Force for Social Justice as a means of investigating how love can be a tool that can be used towards the elimination of violence (elimination of violence against women is a critical element of her body of work).  I highly recommend it as a morale boost and an anti-burn-out tool.  You can read an interview with her about the course here.

In the course, she explores several nonviolent movements, from Gandhi’s Salt March to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, in order to demonstrate how love and commitment can be transformational. She also brings in neuroscience, biology, and psychology to make her points (the science-minded side of me was pleased to see that!).

In our work, we often talk about human rights, empathy, accompaniment, commitment, humility….but we rarely talk about love as a force for change.  It’s seen as weak, at worst, and perhaps out of place at best.

Martin Luther King, Jr, once not-so-famously said that “justice is love in calculation. Justice is love working against anything that stands against love. Standing beside love is always justice.”  Cornel West said, more famously, “justice is what love looks like in public”.So, with love being so foundational to so many social movements and so intrinsically tied with justice, maybe it is time for a small change that would allow a tsunami of changes to come.

Book Report: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

I’ll read it so you don’t have to.

Yes. I read it. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k by Mark Manson.  I read it as I was struggling with a tough work relationship and felt like I had exhausted all of my “normal” tools…so why not take a “counterintuitive approach” since nothing else seemed to be working?

The premise of the book can be distilled to this–we have been taught to make lemonade out of lemons. We all have. We’ve been taught to look on the bright side and to give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in all of that and can find myself relentlessly trying to make lemonade.  Manson’s view is that we also need to learn how to better deal with the lemons.  Life is full of lemons, we can’t possibly drink all that lemonade!

“Self-improvement and success often occur together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same thing. Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier. Be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest. Be smarter, faster, richer, sexier, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired. Be perfect and amazing and crap out twelve-karat-gold nuggets before breakfast each morning while kissing your selfie-ready spouse and two and a half kids goodbye. Then fly your helicopter to your wonderfully fulfilling job, where you spend your days doing incredibly meaningful work that’s likely to save the planet one day. “

So, if you can, essentially accept yourself and your shortcomings and the shortcoming of those around you, you may be happier in the end. It is a perspective that I hadn’t really contemplated before yet aligns so nicely with finding contentment in life and satisfaction in the day-to-day.

My big take-aways that were, believe it or not, really helpful and valuable for my situation, were:

First– We have a limited number of f*cks to give. Be sure to put them in the right place. In my case, I was letting something at work bother me so much that I was letting it affect my relationship at home. My f*ucks are much better spent on creating and maintaining and enjoying a loving relationship at home than worrying about an ultimately inconsequential relationship at work (this is the entire premise of the book, so the lesson was well learned, thankyouverymuch).

Second– We ought to be careful about our metrics of success. The book outlines a story of a guitar player who got fired from his original band. The guitarist vowed to become a rock legend. He filled stadiums, sold millions of records, and won numerous awards. Yet, later in his life, when he was interviewed, he tearfully claimed his life was a failure. He thought he was a failure because his new band, Megadeath, wasn’t as successful as his original band, Metallica.  Now, I have no idea how how “big” either of those bands are–but I do know that Megadeath is a pretty big deal.  You can read more of that story here.  I was so worried about how I was being treated by one person (and thinking about how she might treat me) that I had to grapple with feelings of failure when things didn’t work out. Now, if my metrics for success were aligned with my values and if I even defined my metrics in the first place, I might have cared less or maybe it wouldn’t have gotten as bad as it did. In any case. This perception helped.

Now, there are some problematic bits–especially for a feminist like me. This certainly feels like it was written for white guys. And, frankly, white guys don’t need more fodder for their sexism.

Ultimately, we are in a competitive world that is, for some, made more so with social media and the ever present FOMO.  So, if we can all just calm down, we may find greater happiness. And if not happiness, contentment. And that would be pretty great, too.

Nonviolent communication

Words are powerful.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we want to be heard. And we’ve all been in situations where we could have done a better job of listening.

I worked with someone with whom communication was challenging, to say the least. I tried all sorts of strategies, I took courses, read books to try to over come those challenges…all to no avail.  It left me feeling pretty hopeless, actually.  I am typically a person who oozes positivity and enthusiasm. This took me for a loop and left me feeling frustrated, ashamed at my own shortcomings, and dejected, frankly.

I didn’t want to let the relationship end without learning something or trying to improve upon my own communication skills.  I decided to read this book and take a  course with the Center for Nonviolent Communication in the foundations of compassionate communication or non-violent communication (NVC).

The practice of NVC has it’s roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  Many of the social justice movements I’ve been involved with have been founded in theories of non-violence. NVC is a tool that can be used towards the social justice end.  The rationale and sentiment behind it seemed like it would naturally jive with my sensibilities.   

As a basic premise, NVC supposes that all human have a set of basic needs that go way beyond just the physical needs to include needs such as love, understanding, compassion, purpose, and so on.  If we can identify our own needs that motivate our behaviors, which might not be evident at first blush, then we may be able to recognize how to fulfill that need or identify how it is currently being filled.  The trick is to do so in a way that carries no judgement or evaluation but that is based on a series of observations and feelings associated with those observations.

Likewise, if we can communicate in such a way as to discover the needs that motivate behaviors in others, we can connect more deeply and in ways that satisfy both parties.  Typically, it is the strategy to fulfill our needs that conflicts with other people, but not the need itself.  By unpacking what the needs may be, with empathy and non-judgement, there is hope for a mutually agreeable strategy to appear and unfold.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Except that it is much harder to do in practice than it may sound.  It takes commitment, time, and a vulnerability that I am not accustomed to, especially in the workplace, even my social-justice-minded workplaces.   I struggled a bit with this method not being based in research and there are several suggested ways of communicating that seem clunky or unnatural.  That aside…I am eager to learn more and use some of what I learned to improve my skills.

What tools do you bring to the workplace to ensure clear and honest communication?