On Friendship, Social Justice, and Living Life Like It’s a Poem by Viraj Patel

My training as a social justice educator and student affairs practitioner traditionally focused on a politics of oppression instead of a politics of social justice. Let that sink in for a second (and if you’re looking for an awesome resource/guest speaker to bring to your campus about this topic, let me know; I can send along the name of someone we brought to my current institution) because my post isn’t going to focus on explaining this idea. I think this education of power and oppression is incredibly important, but some of its unintended side effects for me were to (a) focus only on situations that generate anger and hurt (b) forget how to appreciate and celebrate the beauty of the world and (c) what it means to be and feel liberated.

While I am grateful for many things at every moment, today I am truly grateful to have met one of my best friends, Nafisa. We met here in DC and connected quickly over being South Asian, our passion for social justice, navigating our family politics and our collective hunger for learning (and perhaps Taqwacore). This year, though, my biggest lesson from her was reconnecting with the beauty of social justice work through the arts.

You see, my friend doesn’t only read and then talk about it to make herself seem smart in conversations (she already is smart, thankyouverymuch). She also doesn’t only post articles/Facebook links passively- she engages with other people, with new thoughts, and actively seeks out new experiences. She takes action through community organizing (she coordinates world music concerts with another friend to provide spaces for people who don’t have access to events like this AND works with community organizations dedicated to empowering youth through engaging faith journeys and the arts) and sees the beauty in everyday life – even in a simple cup of tea or taking advantage of an isolated bridge (picture below). Basically, she’s awesome.

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In the two years I’ve known her, I’ve learned a lot. As I wrap up what was personally one of the most difficult years of my life, I find the goals I’m setting not so much about things in my control (my health, how much I call friends, etc.) but rather on how to shift my worldview to also embrace that, so often, things really are outside of our control.

I’ve made it a resolution for next year to be a bit more like Nafisa- to see the world as a work of art to be pored over, picked through, something to be frustrated with, to celebrate, and get lost in. She appreciates music, painting, world culture and strives to do something creative every day- be it writing a limerick, singing, dancing, or getting lost in a new song.  I see her as living in a poem that is continuously being composed, edited, and annotated.

What I’m really saying is, let’s bring back some of the whimsy into our work and our lives, fellow practitioners. Let’s not be afraid to fall in love with a sunset, create an arts workshop for our students as a tool to explore diversity and multiculturalism, and engage with the arts to build and empower communities. I believe that social justice work is also about passionately engaging with the idea of finding happiness for you and bringing it to others- how can you engage the arts to bring happiness to others and still teach critical thinking?

Lets use this space to really start a conversation- what have you done to bring the arts into your practice and journey? How do you connect it to your work and your extracurricular life?

Viraj Patel is in 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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