Loving Social Justice Conversations Isn’t Enough: It’s Time To Move Forward by Viraj Patel

It’s summer. For some of us in the world of higher education, this is a time to slow down a bit, catch up on sidelined projects and (perhaps mostly in a dream world) get a head start on a few things for the Fall. I like to use the summer months as a time to also focus on my professional development. As I join the throngs of people inspired by (for better or worse) the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court last week, the national call on how to “Lean In” to your career, and the global protests over women’s rights, race relations, LGBTQ rights, and more, it’s impossible not to feel like I should be doing more than chatting with coworkers and perhaps signing the casual petition. I also fully own that some of the pressure comes from the fact that I live in Washington, D.C. and with a national eye on my home, I always feel I should be doing more. This pressure may also be some of my own internalized model minority stuff, but we’ll have to save that introspection for another time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really know how to “do more”. I know- it sounds pathetic.  You’ll have to bear with me here- this is kind of embarrassing. For something that is a lot of talk, I am totally one of those keyboard activists that post a few awesome articles on facebook, facilitates some conversation with colleagues and students, and if I’m feeling particularly fired up, I’ll blog about it. It’s okay- I’m at terms with who I am and have vision for who I want to be. I am confident I’ve impacted change at the micro level with individual friends, family and colleagues, and possibly even the meso level within my direct office and institution. Learning to advocate for myself as a first generation Indian American immigrant woman is a battle I face each and every day, and I’m proud of the person I’ve become. My upper middle class formal education I’ve been truly blessed to receive taught me so much about how to navigate the world, advocate in certain arenas effectively, give me language for who I am and what I bring to the table, and especially how to approach social justice and diversity education, albeit almost exclusively from an upper middle class perspective. I am grateful for it- after all, these skills got me to where I am today, and that isn’t too shabby.

I realize, though, that while what I’m doing is certainly important, I’m personally at a place where I could be doing more. Pointing something out (track, PAN, interrupt etc.), facilitating a conversation, writing a memo, preparing a presentation, and writing are no longer a set of skills I am satisfied with. I want to know how I can do more to change the world, and as I continue to reflect on my unique combination of privileged and subordinated identities, I realize- this just isn’t something I ever learned how to do. While I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the best education in the world, there are simply lessons I haven’t learned. The decolonization of my mind has been almost solely in front of a keyboard, sitting in a classroom, or maybe over coffee.

So, as I continue to target my own growth as a professional, and engage with my education to build my skill base as an individual, practitioner, and aspiring ally, I challenge myself to do the following this summer:

1.)    Go to a protest- I’ve actually never participated in a protest in the stereotypical way we think about it- marching, with signs, and making my voice heard for something I believe in. I’m challenging myself to go to one this summer. Being in DC this shouldn’t be too hard, and maybe I’ll even bring a student with me to talk about it and engage in the learning process together. For those of you who don’t have access to a protest in the immediate future, consider attending a meeting or event of a politically active local community organization.

2.)    Call my local congressperson: I’ve never done this either. Honestly, as someone from Illinois, Vermont, and now DC (all overwhelmingly blue), I had somehow convinced myself that it didn’t matter. I see how wrong this is- as my own home state of Illinois moves forward in the fight for legalization of same sex marriages, I know this is a conversation I can engage in and turn my beliefs into action by making sure I can continue to claim my home state with pride.

3.)    Build a sustained relationship with a community organization: This may mean participating in a regular volunteer opportunity on my own, committing to a mentorship program, or even building a meaningful partnership within my capacity as a Community Director at Georgetown.  That will be up to the organization I partner with and what they need from me.

4.)    Pick a new professional challenge I can engage with:  Applying theory to practice is so much easier said than done. How can I turn the soul enriching frequent conversations I have with students and colleagues into tangible programs that impact systemic change? I’ll have to do something thinking about this one – stay tuned for a series on my personal blog on skills I wish I learned in graduate school!

5.)    Have fun with it. Boy, did this semester see an overwhelming combination of laughter and tears. I realized in April that I just wasn’t having fun with engaging in the work anymore. Instead, I was falling into a trap where I only saw the negative and fell into more of a politics of oppression versus a politics of social justice. It’s time to really explore how to have fun, live my life in accordance with my values, practice kindness toward myself and others, and enjoy the process while working towards the conclusion.

What are some of the ways you’d like to grow as a social justice practitioner?


Viraj Patel is entering her third year as a Community Director in the Office of Residential Living at Georgetown in Washington, DC. You can read more of her musings at http://www.sheisthriving.com

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