Behind the powerful protest pictures, moving speeches, and glamorous social media posts, social justice work is actually hard. Without the right balance, social justice work can get downright ugly and result in sleepless nights, tension among organizers, anxiety from traumatic issues, and burn out. It is a give and take relationship, in which the work can easily take more than it gives.
In my experience organizing and advocating for various issues on Columbia’s campus, the balance has been tricky. Particularly in the microcosm of a college campus, advocacy work can often be laborious with little support; dealing with systemic issues can honestly be overwhelming and draining. Finding where to start, determining how to approach the problem, creating action, and sustaining your work are difficult stages and sometimes cycles of advocacy. The moments of crippling failure and those of success are deeply interwoven––one cannot exist without the other.
Sometimes, the work comes to you, whether you want it to or not. Sometimes, you stumble upon it and can’t walk away, but once you are there, you are thrown into a rabbit hole of larger systemic issues that have various winding paths. My work had a funny way of finding me: It came in the form of an arrogant white man. After his rant about racial superiority and a viral video, I found myself in a place of hurt and disappointment with a desire for the University to hold students accountable and to prevent these actions. I was forced to advocate for administrative support for myself while learning about University policies on discrimination. I started the game of change-making, and it has fundamentally transformed my Columbia experience for better or for worse.
Finding a tangible, feasible solution to an issue is dynamic––your solutions are never concrete. They are constantly remodeled by new research, lived experiences, and the realities of the systems in place. I was hit by this shocking reality as I created an initiative to resolve some of the glaring issues with on-campus policies on discrimination. With my peers from No Space for Hate, we constantly remodeled and reshaped our work to meet the reality of the institutions we were dealing with. It was a cycle of meetings negotiating, advocating, listening, succeeding, and failing. It was truthfully the hardest thing I have ever done at Columbia.
I believe that the most difficult part by far is sustaining your work. Change, unfortunately, rarely happens all at once––instead, it takes generations of advocacy. During that time, failure is around every corner. I have failed so many times trying to create initiatives, projects, and events that were simply unsustainable. Particularly with No Space for Hate, our work was vital but unsustainable. It took a toll on all of us because we worked tirelessly on the project, but saw little immediate change. It left me drained and feeling like I wasted not only my time but also that of my peers who believed in the goal. Since I was constantly being met with failure, it was disappointing, and I needed to take a step back not because I no longer cared about the issue, but because this particular project wasn’t feasible and was emotionally exhausting.
However, I must say that even when met with constant failure, nothing beats the community that is ultimately built––even on terrible days where it feels like nothing is changing. Being surrounded by team members, friends, and organizers who recognize a cause and appreciate your work, and you theirs, helps make everything easier. I am eternally grateful for my peers whose shared belief in making Columbia a better place, allows them to power through the failures, show up to endless meetings, and advocate for better policies. Even if we can’t see it sometimes, we are part of a vital legacy of activism on this campus, and celebrating our small victories together can mean a lot. Although the initiative I poured my heart into is no longer here this semester, I am able to see the change my peers and I have made––from changes in bias protocol to the launch of the University Life’s Inclusion, Belonging and Community Citizenship Initiative.
I think the most interesting part about activism is this: As you are changing the systems around you, you are also being changed by this work. I feel more resilient in the face of adversity and more apt at finding solutions. But most importantly, I have learned how to build community. For better or worse, I have been able to give and receive change.
Kwolanne Felix is a student organizer and a sophomore at Columbia College studying history. This article hopes to bring light to the often difficult work of organizing on a college campus, and coming to terms with failure. For inquiries on her work on campus or ways to get involved, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot her a DM on Instagram @Kwolanne. You can take a sip of Intersectionali-Tea on alternate Tuesdays.
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