Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sadness is an Underrated Emotion

Image by Cynthia Changyit Levin
When was the last time you had a really good cry? Did you tell people about it? Did you take a selfie your sad face? Of course not. In our happy-driven society (#100DaysOfHappiness, anyone?), can we create a useful space for sadness? Can being sad actually help our ability to shape our world? I think "yes," if we allow ourselves to listen to our sadness. 

The negative emotion of sadness is an feeling which - carefully cultivated - can lead us to postive, powerful actions. Like anger, a common catalyst for social change and justice, it's quieter cousin is often at the beginning of our awareness that change is needed. If we're not dwelling endlessly in it, sadness can motivate us to rectify a bad situation. We know we don't want to feel that way. We don't want other people to feel that way. So...we do something about it. We pick up the baby who cries. We comfort those who are hurting. We help.

Sadness is our indication - our admission, even - that something is very wrong. And as we work through our grief, sadness organizes our mind. Crying - and I mean a good, solid, sobbing cry with stuff coming out of your nose - is a cathartic tool our minds can use to clear a path for useful thought. And a clear thought path is a very, very useful thing for an activist mom fighting for the lives of children.

Image: "Inside Out" by Disney/Pixar
This summer's Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out treated us to a thoughtful allegory reminding kids and adults how healthy sadness can be. The emotion of Sadness is characterized by an unassuming, little blue character who shows her true worth when things are falling apart for the 11-year-old girl she helps control. The character of Sadness at her best shows compassion and finds solutions. Sadness calls attention to the things that are wrong in life and helps us deal with them...usually by starting with a good cry.

After the crying subsides comes a critical moment: the balance point of when we either slip into hopelessness or get down to the real work of changing the world around us. We can dry our eyes, blow our noses, and look at the problem with new clarity and sense of purpose. This tipping point leads to either action or acceptance that things are never going to change. It is a vulnerable time. The difference between these two reactions can have a lot to do with who is around us to help pick us up after we fall. Can we find supportive family, friends, and allies to help us move forward?

At a 2013 Clinton Global Initiative panel, Khalida Brohi - a Pakistani activist who founded the Sughar Empowerment Society at the age of 16 - spoke of how her father taught her to turn from frustration and sadness to action:

"Growing up I've cried a lot, a lot...I saw my cousins getting married very early age 9 years 11 years of age. My mom was married at 9 years of age. I saw my aunties and neighborhood women being beaten. I saw things happening and I could not make sense of it. I could only cry. I would go and hide myself in the house and I would cry and cry. But a lot of times I would cry in my father's arms and he would actually say something to me that I would always remember. Whenever I ran to my home and just hugged him and cried, he would say: "Khadila, my dear...

Don't cry. Strategize." 
Khadila Brohi with Bono. Image: AFP
And strategize she did. Her non-profit which takes it's name from a word meaning "skilled and confident woman" equips women in rural Pakistan with skills and resources necessary for economic and personal growth. Women from over 20 villages use embroidery skills to create fashionable products and sustain a small company. Even though Khalida's father did say "Don't cry," I don't believe he wanted to negate her emotion. He was an empowering influence guiding her to re-direct her negativity into positive social change.

As an activist, I sometimes get out of touch with my own sadness. Doing this kind of activism every day, I kind of have to be to some extent. I build up a wall to keep moving through the terrible stories and statistics routinely coming through my in-box. But it's a mistake to be completely out of touch. 

There are moments when a certain personal story tears my walls down, reduces me to tears, and ultimately makes me a better activist. One such moment came when I was listening to Raj Shah - then director of USAID - give a luncheon speech in Chicago. He spoke of horrible statistics of child mortality and malnutrition, all familiar to me. Then, he showed a picture of a trip to a refugee camp and related the story of a mother who travelled many miles to bring her child to the camp where he received life-saving care. It was an uplifting story. But then he called our attention to something in the background of the photo. At the time, he'd thought it was a pile of blankets. Instead, it was revealed that the small bundle of material actually concealed her other child who had not survived the journey. This mother had to literally put her dead child behind her in order to care for her surviving boy and talk to a visiting American to help her people get the aid they need to survive.

I broke.

I broke in a big, fantastic way with tears and removal of myself from the room. When my dam  explodes, there is a lot of salt water behind it. I cried and I didn't truly stop crying until later that night when I had a work call with RESULTS volunteer, Beth Wilson. In the midst of our work, I told her what was going on that day and wept for that child and all the children we haven't been able to reach with our advocacy and aid. She listened with great understanding and helped me re-commit myself to our work with a greater sense of urgency than existed the moment before I saw the picture.

So, the next time you break down, I hope you will take the time to listen to yourself about what is causing the tears. Seek out others who are willing to listen and support. And, finally, say to yourself with compassion and understanding, "Don't cry. Strategize."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe

from pinWords
I've been thinking about bloggers and branding lately. When you start diving into the world of  blogging, you run across topics like "expanding your audience" and "developing your personal brand." How do these ideas translate for someone like me who is a sometimes-blogger, but more often an anti-poverty activist?
image owner unknown

The idea of a personal brand certainly isn't new, especially for celebrities who actually do represent brands and charities. But it might be a new concept for those of us not-so-famous community organizers. We swim in smaller ponds, but some of the same rules apply to us as to the big fish. We are also trying to build an audience in that we're trying to get our message out and find people to take actions with us to change the world. I believe in diversity in race and economics within a movement, but when it comes down to personality, it's much easier to look for people with similar attitudes and a passion for your issues and mission. Whether you're getting someone to "follow" a blog or "follow" your lead to write to members of Congress, you want to find like-minded people who want to be around you and do the same things you are doing. 

I see lots of bloggers out there who have much bigger audiences than I do whose voices might be categorized with some of the following words:
            negative     abrasive    snarky     judgemental

               blaming others or organizations   angry                 sales-y    petty    derisive    devisive
I guess there must be a lot of people out there who like to read that kind of stuff. As for me, I get tired of it quickly. I prefer to choose to read these kinds of blogs: 
              positive    inspiring  uplifting  inclusive      encouraging         logical      action-oriented
          sincere    candid        funny     reliable
Those words describe people that I'd like to work with in my advocacy activities. It seems to me that like will attract like, so those are characteristics I try to put in my personal brand. I'm certainly not saying that I don't have a negative or snarky side to me. It's just that I prefer those darker qualities in drinking buddies and comedians. For this side of me that I put out on-line, I'm going to choose the more positive image. We shouldn't totally change our personalities - note the word "sincere" in the above list - but we CAN be purposeful about choosing the sides of ourselves that we present to the world and make sure we cultivate them.

If you write in a militant way, you'll probably get pretty militant readers following you. I understand that can be good for some activists. Yet for myself, I'm looking for inclusive, positive, and inspiring people to hang out with in real life and online, so I'm going to try to put those things out there to bring those people into my world.
Who are you looking to meet? 
What kinds of words describe how you want the world to see you online?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Yukking it up on #RedNoseDay to Fight Poverty

I spend almost every day of my life thinking about serious things: children dying from lack of water or nutrition, parents dying of AIDS without options to secure their children's safety, teachers trying to educate children who are too hungry to focus on school work...this is heavy stuff. Too heavy to be weighed down with all the time. Too heavy to lay on my children as I find ways to involve them in helping. That's why I'm excited about Red Nose Day!

Red Nose Day is a day in the UK, every two years, when people get together and do something funny for charity money at home, school, and work. There's a night on the BBC TV network with comedy and entertainment to inspire the nation to give generously. And now the idea has finally made it across the ocean to the US for May 21, 2015.

I love this idea of a nation-wide day of fun and laughter to bring awareness to serious causes. It invites us to use our creativity and silliness to change the world for the better. What can you do with a red nose? Take a selfie and spread awareness with the #RedNose hashtag? Gather donations for the number of hours you'll wear your red nose at work and around in public? Invite friends over to pay a charity cover charge to hear the neighborhood kids tell knock-knock jokes? Watch the live Red Nose Day benefit on NBC and call in a donation? It's all up to you and it's all fun. 

The American version of Red Nose Day will benefit this long list of charities: Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and MalariaFeeding America, Save the Children, OXFAM America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Children's Health Fund, United Way, and Charity: Water

When I saw how many charities I already lobby for or donate to were on that list...of COURSE, I had to pick up a couple at Walgreens as I stood around waiting in line! I'm happy to say that our area of St Louis is completely sold out of red noses. I'm sorry for friends I see frantically posting about trying to find them, but I'm proud of my community for being supportive of a visible and goofy sign of support for some humorless issues.

But, hey, look. Don't take my word for it. You can watch the "William Shatner Explains Red Nose Day" trailer because...Shatner.