A post this week by Meg at Planning the Day struck me as doing what aid blogs do best – reflecting on personal experience and how it impacts our day-to-day work. Thus I’m cross-posting this very personal and poignant piece on passion and activism and how it evolves in our hearts and minds to shape us as development practitioners.
Last week’s post about Invisible Children’s questionable new promotional media campaign started another round of conversations about Invisible Children’s marketing and role in the NGO community. A friend suggested that while it’s easy to pour on the criticism against Invisible Children (IC), as development workers and activists we have a lot to learn from them, especially regarding how passionate their staff are.
On the surface, he has a point; IC’s staff is willing to work around the clock for next to nothing and live in group homes that make frat houses look good, all because they believe in what they’re doing. It’s a far cry from Land Cruisers, relocation packages, and cynical late-night conversations over warm beer (with ice, of course).
He’s right in that their staff’s passion is admirable, and unusual. I wonder, though, if that passion springs directly from the black and white way that they portray their work. It’s easy to be on fire for your job when you never question if you’re on the side of justice. It’s also easy to push concerns about money, school and work aside when it’s your first time in this kind of work and you really believe that you’re going to end. the. war. Kill Kony. Rescue the children. Restore peace and sanity. And look hot doing it.
It’s been five years since I was one of those IC kids. I was a freshman at Boston College when I saw the documentary for the first time, offered to help with the Global Night Commute in Boston, and…ended up spending about 40 hours a week organizing the logistics and promoting the event around the city for the next two months. I skipped more classes than I can count, often forgot to eat, spent several hours a day on the phone with the San Diego office, and was on a first name basis with city commissioners and police officers who would provide permits and security. I slept for a few hours a night, and found a way to make philosophy and early childhood development papers about child soldiers so that my schoolwork wouldn’t be a distraction. I loved every minute of it and never questioned if it was worth it, because I was sure that this single event was the be-all and end-all for Northern Uganda.
I’m nowhere near as single-minded about my work now as I was when I first started volunteering with IC. I’m less willing to sacrifice for JUSTICE or PEACE or SAVING LIVES, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’ll still take work phone calls at any time of day and I struggle to set boundaries between work and personal life. My perspective is slowly shifting though; I don’t approach my work with the same sense of urgency that characterized my semester spent working with IC. If I’m exhausted by the thought of a three-hour drive to a village to teach, I’ll take a morning off and stay in the office. If our workshop evaluations don’t get done on time, I don’t worry about it. And if I’m tired, craving Western food or English speakers, I don’t feel guilty about escaping to Phnom Penh for a few days.
It isn’t that I care less at this point; it’s just that I’m in this for the long haul now. For me, that’s meant facing that immediate results are few and far between in this kind of work. With that, I’m recognizing that the How matters as much as the What. When I believed I was going to fix things through a few months of all-consuming organizing and advocacy, it was easy to justify putting my studies, my health, and my friendships on hold. When the war was over, when the night commuters could sleep at home, when the child soldiers could return to their families and the IDPs to their villages, it would all be worth it. That end seemed within reach when I was working with IC.
After a few years in this field, and more than a year in Cambodia, I’m learning to value the process more than the results. Unexpected rain can cancel a workshop that’s been planned for months. A flat tire can prevent visits to women we promised to see. One too many bottles of rice wine can undermine a police officer’s training about the domestic violence law.
In any of those cases, it’s possible that extra effort on my part may be able to change the outcome. Flooded roads can be navigated in village’s boats. Tires can be quickly repaired with enough sweet-talking and a dollar to sweeten the deal. Human rights NGOs can open cases against negligent policemen.
But this is life here, and learning to deal with the unexpected, means having grace for myself and my colleagues when we choose not to fight every battle. Giving 110% of myself today is a sign that I value the outcomes more than the process. It’s also a sure indicator that either tomorrow, next month, or next year, I’ll have less of myself to give. Not surprisingly, Thomas Merton says it best in his Letter to a Young Activist:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
I don’t know what this means for Invisible Children exactly. “Join us for a winding journey equally full of successes and disappointments” doesn’t have the same ring as “be a hero” or “save a life.” It may mean that in order for IC to have more realistic and responsible marketing, they’ll have to stop relying on cheap, passionate labor. And instead of asking their staff to give anything and everything, pay and support them enough that they can be in it for the long haul. It’ll make cynics out of some of them, sure, but the ones who stick around will be there for love of the process, not attachment to results.
N.B. Invisible Children has responded to Meg’s post. You can see their comments on the original post.