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Accompanying Awareness: Thoughts for Our Social Justice Age

Graduating from my liberal arts college has been strange and a bit empty. I no longer see people in public places not wearing shoes, or riding a unicycle, or exclusively wearing NorthFace, saying incomprehensible things like “coffee and The Word”. There’s no longer a plethora of lectures and events for me to attend every night for every subject under the sun. From what I’ve come to learn about liberal colleges, it can seem like the campus feels like it’s discovering invisible issues for the first time in history. Like no one  else before has held a lecture on “unreached people groups”, “education inequality”, “feminist intersectionality”, “human trafficking”, etc.

It can feel like we’ve made catchphrases of real issues to fit under the all-encompassing Social Justice movement. We make Social Justice Awareness Weeks on campuses, and social media movements like drawing Xs on our hands or changing our profile picture or wearing a specific bracelet in efforts to show that we too are aware.

I think liberal college students use “awareness” in two different ways: the first is actually learning a topic you didn’t know anything about and challenging your own ignorance. It’s a vital part of our education. The second is saying that you’re aware to show that you’re superior. We’ve politicized the term to an identity marker. You’ve made it when you’re AWARE.

I deeply loved this aspect of my college experience though. I loved lectures and sitting in the back of events that had nothing to do with my major, solely for the purpose of learning about what’s going on around me and how it’s really affecting communities and people. I loved leaving somewhere feeling passionate and ready to keep learning more. When we use awareness as a jumping off point, we’re doing it right.

One conversation I had in my International Political Economics class that really stuck with me is if we’ve taken social justice awareness too far. Have we made everything so academic and separate that we aren’t really even participating in true dialogue? Or have good intentions further created an atmosphere of complacency and ignorance under the guise of “trendiness”?

We specifically used the example of StopKony2012. We’ve all heard of it; it’s almost a household movement, even. But it’s 2016 and Joseph Kony is still evading capture and has war crimes piling up at the ICC. Amazingly, the campaign made us believe that if enough Americans watched a video, a brutal warlord would be captured. That hasn’t happened.

Sometimes I think that shout-into-the-void protests for awareness is like the hype guy during a fight who occasionally yells things like “You’re gonna get it” or “it’s going down!”. Yeah, he’s building the hype but essentially, what is he really doing?

Trending hashtag campaigns or taking pictures of yourself in dresses to stop sex trafficking on Instagram surely has a purpose but only for making something visible. It doesn’t do anything beyond.

I think our generation needs to accept that change is beyond just awareness. If we’re truly saying that our awareness stops at a click on social media or attendance at a rally, we’re cementing our own fates. But if we do move beyond awareness to accompanying action, action that is socially conscious of its implications (like cultural, economic, and environmental considerations), we can make substantial change through dedication and passion.

Here’s accompanying action that I believe is achievable for young people who want to be involved in more than just empty gestures:

  1. Voting: PLEASE, DEAR GOD, YOU MILLENNIALS, GO OUT AND VOTE! We are so beyond lucky to get the opportunity to vote in free elections, and all you have to do is minimal work to get registered and actually research your candidates. Please vote for candidates who have a history of justice and consistency. I recently got to meet Abby Kuzma (R) who is running for Attorney-General of Indiana; her platform actively pursues social justice measures (like foreclosure, prescription drug abuse, and sex trafficking) as a part of the AG’s responsibilities in a way that has never happened before in the state. She’s a consensus-builder and a feminist and a true crusader in social justice. She’s like Beyonce of state politics who renewed my hope in career politicians. Elect change by getting politically involved.

  2. Volunteering: Liberal arts grads really romanticize non-profit work as the only kind of change happening, which I’m not discrediting at all. But it can feel like more self-glorifying at times, and also a bigger commitment than some can make. You don’t have to join the PeaceCorps to be a part of change. In every city and town across the US, there are countless churches, programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, homeless shelters, youth program, etc. Go onto Google, find your niche, and get involved in your community.

  3. Preventative Action: Here’s what I mean by this. I’ve attended a lot of lectures on the foster care system and its connection to sex trafficking. It is a horrific issue that we let continue. But what does an intellectual discussion help? How this particular issue will be addressed in the long-term is through policy change, but in the short term, it takes loving and safe families who are willing to bring these children into their homes, whether through fostering or adopting. This tangible hope and opportunity means more than waiting for kids to age out of the system and become a statistic for a signature campaign. Sacrificing things to become a part of combating an issue is fundamental.

  4. Give others the platform, don’t be the voice yourself: Who is the most qualified to speak about the realities of being stuck in an immigration legal battle? An undocumented citizen or an upper-middle class 20-something college student? If a student group on your campus is trying to speak on an issue without qualified speakers or lecturers, remember that they are speaking over someone else’s reality. A part of change through awareness is empowering others to tell their stories and be their own voice. Making connections and bridge-building must also be a part of change.

  5. Be mindful about what you support– There are several good ways to check if the charity or non-profit or movement you support is actually legitimate and fiscally transparent. If a charity doesn’t actually have a viable plan or sustainable goals for itself, it’s sucking away your money and attention.

While this may seem preachy, I think it’s time to call out the culture of overwhelming social justice awareness that exists in shallow forms and empty gestures. I believe our generation has every means and resource necessary to make real positive change outside of the lofty academic sphere and the Twitterverse, if only we bridge awareness with action. 

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