by Sydney Rosh
“What does social justice look like?” was the question that sparked the conversation introducing us to the “Achieving Activism Across Specialties” panel. The rain was pouring outside while the total of Globemed and some friends gathered in the abandoned Brown and Brew. Our four panelists sat eagerly at the forefront, ready to talk, listen and engage with us. Their excitement to share their stories with us—the future of activism—was clear. Our four panelists included Pat Simpson who was a nurse, emergency-prepared coordinator and mentor for high school students; Dr. Gary Goldstein, a physics professor; Laura Rogers a psychologist who had worked in prisons; and finally, Alicia Hunt, the director of energy and environment for the city of Medford. We had a very diverse panel in terms of background and experience. One question we had discussed prior to their talk was whether their cultural and racial diversity, or rather lack of it, would provide a lively, engaging and profound discussion.
After introductions, we got into our next question: what sparked your interest in activism? Furthermore, what are the most effective methods for activism? Pat started us off. She described growing up in the Bronx in New York City with not a lot of money. Growing up in New York, she was forced to interact with many different types of people. She developed a love for people and listening to them. This alone sparked an interest in activism because she was able to see the power in people helping other people. For her the best ways of getting involved in activism was, no surprise, talking and listening to people. She also emphasized the significance of doing proper research, making sure you have good data and having reliable resources. For Gary, who grew up during the Civil Rights Era in a working class family, activism became a significant part of his life during college—he went to the University of Illinois which at the time was only a two-year college. He saw the financial difficulties of this firsthand and fought hard to make a change: he helped organize protests to turn this two year college into a four year college, he organized food drives and generally got involved in his community. Laura grew up during the 60s when the culture of activism was thriving and strong. She grew up in a conservative environment but started to question these ideals once she entered college. Immediately after college she worked in a prison as a psychologists; from this experience she realized her privilege and that she needed to use it for the better. Her strategy regarding activism was simple and to-the-point: take the stance of listening, observing and joining—rather than simply being an activist. Alicia also grew up during the 60s but with progressive-liberal parents. Once she was married and had children she became very aware of the environmental issues that plagued her world. This prompted her work on the Obama campaign, and then her work with Elizabeth Warren. She learned about her local, Medford politics and got involved in local politics. Her methods of being an effective advocate included understanding the situation and who the players are—who are the decision-makers. She offered the advice of making your voice heard to people who can actually make change and do something with that information.
Next, the panelists were asked “How do you define social justice and how does that take shape in your work?” Pat repeated the words, “accessibility and opportunity.” Gary made a claim that we need guaranteed housing in the United States. Laura interestingly said that she does not know what social justice means, but rather the way she she knows what social injustice is. Seeing social injustice and acting on that is the only way to achieve social justice. Alicia told us that social justice means not taking a ‘me first’ perspective but rather learning what the larger region needs. She gave us a specific example of the Fair Share amendment which basically says that people who make over a certain amount of money in income will get taxed—this would provide a billion dollars for both transportation and education! That, she emphasized, is social justice!
As the panel went on the panelists were asked to get more personal about how their individual backgrounds influenced their work. They were asked, “How does your own identity effect your involvement in the field of activism?” Pat spoke about losing her best friend in 9/11. In the aftermath, she worked with survivors which got her into the health center field. “Do what you love,” she preached, “your activism can become your job.” Gary talked about identifying with the working class and how that influenced his activism. Furthermore, he spoke about being a physicist and how that gave him a unique understanding of activism. Laura spoke about how her identity evolved from being a developmental psychologist to a clinical psychologist. She spoke about working in Nepal with students with disabilities. She is interested in how we engage with marginalized people in activism—a common question we discuss in Globemed. Alicia spoke about not always having an interest in environmental issues but how that interest evolved.
The last question asked was perhaps the hardest for the panelists to answer: “Taking into account your own privilege, how do you reach others and have other voices be heard?” Pat described how her boss, who is in a place of power always listens to ideas and suggestions from others. Gary described supporting unions. Laura explained how in Nepal, people whose ethnic background was Nepali were being evicted through abusive measures, and thousands of ethnic Nepalis had to go to refugee camps in southern nepal. They needed counseling but this wasn’t a part of their culture, so she learned how to work with professionals in Nepal about how to take care of these people. She discovered different ways of dealing with stress between cultures, and had to learn how to bridge that gap. Her work involved people who are silenced and have the knowledge but not the tools. Alicia described Medford’s growing effort to listen to other communities/populations besides just the ones who speak English. The question centered around the idea of ownership in activism, which dispelled some of our prior concerns about their leadership roles as White Americans in the field of social justice.
The panelists opened the floor to questions. Fellow Globemedders mainly asked about activism on college campuses and what to do with this newfound information. We were told to make email lists, and take advantage of social media and the power of telling people what we are doing. “Actions speak louder than words,” Alicia sat tall in her chair, “Look for ethical dilemma’s in every field,” Gary smiled into the crowd. As the conversation died down and we thanked them it was the clear the impact they had. We organized this event single-handedly and we were proud of our work; these panelists were clearly passionate about their work and had a lot to say. However, a part of me lingered for more. Some of the concerns we expressed prior to the talk were not completely unfair. Perhaps it would have been beneficial to hear from a more diverse panel, and furthermore, learn more about specific activism in Nepal. Perhaps we could have directed more questions at the panelists not just about what activism is itself but inquire how do we as Americans go about activism in a non-ethnocentric way.