Recently, I realised that I had given up. I say ‘realised’ because I didn’t mean to give up. In fact, that’s the last thing I planned to do; the plan was to help to change the world. Obviously.
I think I wanted the issues that literally millions of people had been struggling with for hundreds of years to land at my feet and for me to be able to scoop them up, hold them to my bosom, and then to the light, and sooth and solve them. I mean, no big deal, right?
Totally, utterly and thoroughly wrong. In fact, just saying that idea is ‘wrong’ is a huge understatement and a disservice, because that idea is not only wrong, but offensively naïve. As any thinking person should have known immediately. And truthfully I did know it, I guess. I didn’t really believe I could swoop in and save the day, but I did kind of think I could do something. I thought that maybe I could help, and I perhaps in small ways I did, or at least I started to. What I hadn’t realised was that for myself, being the results driven person I am, it was important to be able to see the impact of that help, to see changes happening. That was what I needed to keep me motivated and stop me from becoming overwhelmed, and when you’re dealing with issues this large and this engrained, not only will the changes not be immediate – you probably won’t even live to see them. Which I hadn’t really factored for when I got going.
So, I made t-shirts, I had fundraisers, I emailed people with accessible but firm messages. I became someone’s mentor and I joined a lot of Facebook groups – because that’s the way we do it now. I had difficult conversations with defensive and offensive people, and I made stands every day. Every day, at one point or another, I straightened my spine and pulled my shoulders back, I fluffed my hair up to it’s full afro potential, and I used my brave girl voice even when my knees were knocking. I used that voice to talk on behalf of all marginalised groups, not just ones I have personal stakes in, and then every night I’d go home with the wind knocked out of me from trying to be everyones advocate, feeling constantly shocked and disheartened by the hostility I faced every day.
I bought beautiful books with provocative and impactful titles, that I just happened to have delivered to my work (a sensible choice really because of the 24/7 post room) and leave on my desk; titles screaming out to anyone who came to speak to me during the day. Titles like ‘They Can’t Kill Us All’, ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle’, ‘You Can’t Touch My Hair’, ‘Bad Feminist’, ‘Waking up White’.
My evenings and weekends became a non-stop sad blur of gin and tonics, and reading about peoples struggles in an unjust world, followed by glasses of wine and going down YouTube wormholes of civil rights videos and American police brutality, and crying and crying without being able to express clear arguments but just feeling helpless and exhausted, and overwhelmed.
I plugged in to activist podcasts during my commutes and at my desk. I read angry blogs and sad articles and felt the worlds sadness without knowing how to heal it. And then I burned out.
And I felt awful about it. I knew I wasn’t the one who was suffering from the injustice, I was just reading about other peoples experiences, the lives they had lived that had been so unfair to them. The problem was that all my reading and watching and listening drew into sharp focus that better people than me had worked for their whole lives, had made sacrifices and inspired people and given their whole lives, and yet here we were. Still.
And that’s where I stayed for a long time. People talked to me about the importance of self-care, and I replied to them with stats about the importance of equal pay. People asked if I was ok and I replied by asking them if they thought systemic racism was ok. Basically I was a full time nightmare.
Then I heard the Guardian Long Read Podcast ‘Protest and persist – why giving up hope is not an option’. I had been avoiding listening to it because giving up hope was exactly what I had done and I didn’t want some sanctimonious journalist in my ear telling me I should feel worse about it. But I did end up listening, and understanding in a way I had never grasped before that we can’t always see the impact of our actions. The impact might be giving people an idea they’ve never had before or sparking the desire to learn in someone new. Your impact might be anything, and what’s more – you might never ever know about it. You may never know if or how you’ve had an impact – but that doesn’t mean you haven’t. And that’s why you can’t give up. And that’s why I’ve stopped giving up and I’m doing my best to find the balance.