by Andrew Willis Garcés
This semester I had the privilege of teaching a course at Georgetown University through the Program on Justice and Peace called “Social Justice: Sustaining Activism.” It was conceived as a place for student activists to take a step back from their justice work and the stress of deadlines, graduation and impending debt service to reflect on their commitments to continuing that work beyond their lives as students. In addition to two and a half hours of classtime each week — designed to be experiential and with peer support time built-in — the students were each paired up with longtime local activists to interview, several of whom were invited to present as guest facilitators. Each day was focused on unpacking one topic related to sustaining social change work, like “How Does Social Change Happen?,” “Nurturing Radical Vision,” “Facing Unequal Privilege” and “Emotional/Spiritual Sustainability & Avoiding Burnout.”
The Enough! Blog came in handy for our back-to-back sessions on “Class & Classism” and “Financial Sustainability.” Along with Notes from New Orleans and Reflections from a Homownersexual, the students also read a handout by Boston’s Class Action, a few short articles by Betsy Leondar-Wright from her book Class Matters and a chapter from Becky Thompson’s A Promise and a Way of Life. For the discussion on financial sustainability, we looked at an annual report put out by Russell Herman, Jr., an activist who works as a facilitator, trainer, coach and mentor to North Carolinians working for justice, and raises his entire salary through individual donations. He’s as transparent about his fundraising and spending as his organizing time, and notes in his report that “the taboo on money [among activists] supports oppression and must end.”
This challenge was taken seriously by the students in the course, few of whom had ever discussed their own class backgrounds in a group setting. As a way of starting the conversation, I invited them to line up in order of raised poor & working class to owning class, and to take as much time as they needed to figure that out. They dove right in, using humor and humility as tools as they talked about family vacations, parents worrying about paying the next month’s utility bills, riding the bus to work or driving in their own cars to retail jobs and soccer practice. After lining up, they broke into two groups with those closest to them on the class spectrum. Most were raised middle class. The students who grew up with less (they chose not to identify as working class) agreed to participate in a fishbowl, letting us listen in on their discussion and responding to a few questions about what they were proud of about their class background, what was challenging and what they’d like people who wanted to be allies to know.
For our “Financial Sustainability” discussion the next week the students got into groups to reflect on the readings for the week. Then I wrote the word “ENOUGH” on an easel pad, and they generated the first list. The comments that day really hit home for me how alien it is to start a conversation about sustaining yourself financially by talking about what’s adequate, as opposed to what desires we’ve been told are normal for people who can attend colleges like Georgetown (where a fifth of the students come from households making above $300,000 a year.) All of us a in the room that day made a choice to throw out those expectations and start from scratch, asking, tentatively, “…and, enough to go out to a movie once in a while with friends? Is that too much?” Fear was as present in the first list as the second — fear of taking more than our share, of being an accomplice to inequality, of the values and desires being nurtured two and a half hours a week in the refuge of a three-credit study group being suffocated by other people’s expectations and our difficult-to-dislodge unearned privilege. Although the discussion ended on a high note, the question hung in the air: Where to, now?
The semester ended this week with student presentations on “What Sustains Me” — more like in-the-moment status reports than comprehensive answers. Some referenced the impact their political commitments have on visions of careers, occupations and family expectations about wealth and standards of living. But most spoke of the financial piece as being a small part of a larger whole. One student led us in an activity of writing our “forecast,” where we’ll be in six months, five years, ten years, fifteen years. Another helped calm my own anxiety about not being able to offer long-term support for the students’ risky experiments with self-disclosure and reimagining their futures by talking about her inspiration for the sticker art project she invited a few dozen high school and college students to participate in. She spoke of having been hard on herself for a long time, getting stuck around issues of privilege and the limit one person can have on structural oppression. So she picked one thing she could do — help groups of people have that conversation, prompted by the Howard Zinn quote, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” Sage advice from a student activist on the frontlines. When stuck, make a list of things you can do; of what constitutes “enough,” or gets us on the path to justice. Pick one.
What is Enough?
- Supportive network to lean on when you need financial help
- Enough to pay utilities
- Quality food to stay healthy
- Ability to pay urgent medical and dental bills
- Small emergency fund
- Enough to spend on entertainment, going out
- Activism-related travel
- Enough to support others financially
- Pay student loans
- Having enough downtime!
Fears About Not Having Enough
- Debt collectors
- Gas turned off
- Becoming too focused on paying bills, loans, less focused on other things that are important
- Social justice work losing priority in my life
- Values changing
- “Forgetting where I came from”
- Losing ideals/idealism
- Losing my radical politics
- Not being able to support a family (echoed by all!)
- Having to move back in with family
- Not having enough for my kids
- Getting sick