To Hold Up Half the World: Reflections on Activism, Wellness, and Personal Transformation
I don’t live in an actual war zone or walk miles to meet my basic needs. In fact, I live in one of the world’s richest nations, in one of its richest cities, amidst some of the starkest living contrasts any right-minded individual can imagine. I live, literally, in the heart of empire-- New York City, epicenter of global capitalism and home to his minions. Here, at the crossroads of the world where representatives of every imaginable human rights and social justice come to garner support, gather resources, and share dreams, ideas, and strategies for building another world, I have found some of the greatest teachers and companions, on the path a more just, beautiful and sustainable world. While the wealth of ideas and visions for change are inspiring, where I often find a void is in how we factor ourselves into these struggles. Activism is selfless, yet I have found myself questioning how best to meet my own needs and find my place in this struggle as my responsibilities and roles in my family and community change. As a new mother and daughter to aging parents, I find myself grappling with issues of personal balance and wellness amidst my earnest commitment to make meaningful contributions to my community and world.
My earliest lessons in social justice, feminism and personal agency came from my father- a lifelong activist who began his own trajectory as a result of his experiences with discrimination, racism and xenophobia when he arrived in the United States from Panama. It was he who inculcated the importance of self-respect and respect for others. It was he who insisted that I had as much right as any other person, to choose my path and construct the life that I wanted. He always urged me to challenge anyone and anything that attempted to limit me because of my race, heritage, or gender, and insisted that I always give respect, and expect it in turn. My father taught me that human beings were the most dynamic species on Earth, and that we in fact had the unique ability to be or become anything. Whatever our colors or stripes, we all deserved to be respected. This value is something that has shaped my life as an activist, educator, and cultural worker in the United States, and informs my desire to nurture new ways of thinking about social change that take into account the complex and diverse spectrum of possibility which exist for each of us.
In my twenties, this meant that my political life was driven by my connection to people, organizations and activities that challenged systemic injustice. While this is still a part of my work, it isn’t enough to satisfy my needs to see change affected in concrete ways, in every day life. Much of what produces systemic injustice is often the direct product of individual action and inaction, rooted in personal values, ideals and ethical codes. That said, to change the world, we must first change ourselves.
In a nation whose national culture is so deliberately consumed by the struggle for personal power and achievement, consumption, and excess while the vast majority of our (and the world’s) citizens struggle to meet their basic needs, the importance of this message reverberates throughout different spheres of my life. The universal human struggle to live with dignity is a basic matter of respect. That said, how we secure and protect this basic principle, is also an important point for reflection. Just as we work and struggle to secure and protect respect for our individual and collective rights, so must we employ strategies that place our individual and collective well-being at the center of our vision for a better world. Our journey to peace and justice must begin with constructing a path that holds sacred these very ends.
As a Puerto Rican-Panamanian woman entrenched in the struggles of low income and working people and people of color in the United States, I carry this and many other lessons with me as a result of having been born precisely into the family that made me. My father’s unwavering commitment to social justice has often come at the expense of his health, personal stability, and relationships with his family. As we know, personal sacrifice is inextricably linked to struggle. While he has always conveyed his hope that his work to help create a better world will benefit his children and grandchildren, he has also been very candid about the fact that we might not live to see the changes he so ardently fights for. In this, he hopes that the values and vision for change that have guided his life become the foundations of all of our lives. He insists that social justice activism is his legacy and the best inheritance that he can leave behind for us.
One of the most valuable things that he has helped me to understand is that social change work does not and cannot exist or grow in isolation from the facts of daily life. While we can choose the issues and conditions that we confront and seek to transform, transformation must occur at all levels of society, on every street corner, in every home. Social change is ultimately collective work that seeks to transform the quality of life for communities composed of individuals. Change happens at the intersection of systems and individual lives. No person should be excluded from this process, especially if their vision is to restore balance to their conditions, or our world. Early exposure to this thinking has fundamentally defined who I am as a person. In this way, my father has achieved his goal of nurturing at least one conscious, humane citizen of the world. But I am not my father. As his daughter, I have had the privilege of learning many valuable lessons at an early age, though I have extracted the elements that I feel our most pertinent to my own life and context.
The notion that every individual is a unique and dynamic unit of change in the broader struggle for social justice is a principle that often goes overlooked or under-utilized in social change work. Many of the people whose painstaking work so profoundly impacts and even transforms our communities, often do so at the expense of their own well-being and fail to transform the very thing over which they have the most control—their own lives and the personal choices which shape them. Helping to birth another world requires that you not only envision and nurture it, but that you create the best possible conditions in which it can be born and flourish. In this process, we must create space to allow our personal lives as well as our political ideals to flourish.
Social change work is not simply a collection of ideas, actions, strategies, campaigns, and causes. It is also the work of transforming ourselves. We must do this work in a sustained and sustainable way that not only impacts the world, but also the quality of our own lives and relationships to self and others. We cannot create a more healthy, balanced, harmonious, and just world, if those things do not live within us, or if we do not at least strive to create a place for them within. This delicate balance between the personal and political is key to surviving the challenges that we will undoubtedly confront, and meeting them with grace.
I have learned these things by reflecting not only on my father’s victories and achievements in more than 40 years of collective work on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, workers’ rights, or racial justice issues in our local community, but also on the challenges, sacrifices, and even losses which he has endured. Bearing witness to his challenges and transformations has allowed me to mine my own values and set personal priorities and standards within my own journey to help transform our world for the better. As many children, I want to honor my elders by honoring their values and if possible, elevating and evolving them for my present context, to ensure that they live on for my children and their children.
To this end, I have made a commitment to do this work with my family and personal wellness at center. Rather than viewing it as selfish or individualistic, I have come to accept this commitment as a key strategy for sustainability. Factoring my personal needs and those of my family into my work life actually helps to expand the possibilities for our world. Individual people, and then families and kin networks, build communities. They are our communities. Ensuring that the holistic wellness needs of these units of community are met, then, helps to ensure that the communities and societies that we build and transform are built on the premise that we should all be well. Our physical, emotional, and even spiritual well-being are key factors in determining how well we can actually participate in and contribute to the world. If we are to invest our most valuable asset- our time- into cultivating the seeds of change, then we must invest wisely. Sometimes, this means doing less or working in unconventional ways so that our long-term impact can be more lasting.
Often, my father and I debate this matter. As his child, I am concerned not only with his contributions to the world, but also with what his work and self-care practices mean for his health and quality of life overall. These debates are often a weighty point of reflection for me, as well, as I struggle to balance my own family and personal life with work commitments, social projects, and self-care needs.
At 35, I have had several lives working in different realms of social justice and community development work. This work is demanding and rigorous despite its rewards. As I mature and take on new responsibilities within my own family, I want to make intentional choices about how I will accomplish the goals I set out to achieve in the service of a greater vision for a better world. I want to live in greater harmony with the people and environment around me, while confronting the barriers that impede everyone from having that very same right. For me, this means raising the standards by which I measure the quality of my everyday life and relationships. It means taking care of myself by resting, eating well, exercising, meditating, sharing quality time with my loved ones, and contemplating the choices before me carefully so that I can serve my community well. With only twenty-four hours in a day, managing all of these things requires a delicate balance and is often a struggle but is another dimension of struggle that I am willing to undertake. It is critical to my (and our) success as we nurture new models for change that honor the fact that women hold up more than half that world.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.