As an aspiring activist, I have always wondered about how I should react to social injustice. At marches, you’re supposed to be indignant and demanding. At discussions and conferences, you’re supposed to be reflective and constructive. At volunteering events, you’re supposed to be compassionate and hopeful. I often find myself reacting to injustice with more intensity than expected — an intensity that borders on anger and bitterness. It makes me angry to know that Philadelphia has one of the highest incarceration and recidivism rates among urban regions in the country, that here, your zip code and your race determine your future. It makes me angry that my peers across the country are dying in school shootings, that people with my skin color are being targeted by both the government and anti-terrorist rhetoric, that immigrants, with the same dream as my parents, are being detained and deported at our borders. How is it that those who immerse themselves in solving these problems are not constantly disturbed, frustrated, and angry? I began to uncover the truth about the activist mindset on two separate occasions when I met individuals fighting for justice.
On September 22nd, 2018, I volunteered at the VoteThatJawn event in Philadelphia as a scribe to help youth teams brainstorm how to bring first-time voters to the polls. I met two girls, Amaya and Beyonce, from Girard College High School. Amaya spoke first, telling me that she and Beyonce had already held a voter registration drive at their school. She spoke confidently, with self-assured responses to all the details I asked her about. Beyonce answered with a little more hesitation, though, composing her thoughts with care before speaking. I asked them what other organizations they were working with at school, and they looked at each other for a moment, their faces hardening with frustration.
“It’s just us,” they said.
Surprised that they had accomplished so much single-handedly, I asked how their school supported them. Once again, they exchanged glances, silent for a moment.
“They didn’t do anything,” Amaya said, and Beyonce added, “We had to fight to make this happen.”
I was shocked: they had to fight their administration for permission to urge seniors to vote, make announcements during school hours, and hold the registration drive? I thought I saw in their faces the same frustration and helplessness that I often feel. But then, I asked who else could help the girls. Amaya straightened, pushing her hair back, and Beyonce brought out her notebook, jotting down the ideas we came up with. I saw that overall the duo was unfazed by adversity they faced; they did not let the moments that made them angry or negative about their work keep them down. I left the event baffled by the girls’ determination, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I began to understand what motivated them.
On Friday, October 19th, I interviewed Jondhi Harrell, the director of The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC). An advocate for the formerly incarcerated, Mr. Harrell himself was imprisoned for 25. years for armed robbery. He became an activist behind bars as he connected with his fellow inmates and became involved in rehabilitation programs. That stuck with me. How could you want to fix a system that took away your freedom? Mr. Harrell then explained that many of those who come to the TCRC are incarcerated for acts that can be traced to their circumstances.
My mind flooded with incarceration statistics from Philadelphia, and I began thinking: how could Mr. Harrell and the TCRC not be angry that the people they are helping were set up for incarceration? They were surrounded by one or more of the environmental factors that often lead to incarceration-poverty, lack of resources, or a poor education: how was it fair that the mistake of birth warranted years behind bars? I was angry; he wasn’t. He spoke to me in a cool, controlled voice, telling me about very serious issues concerning reentry. I could not sense any trace of bitterness is his tone or expression. How was this possible?
I realized that many of those who dedicate themselves to confronting social injustice have moved past the stage of being angry, because anger isn’t productive. Anger wasn’t going to free more prisoners or register more voters. I started to think of this self-control, this notion of rising above, as the activist’s discipline. I recently reached out to Mr. Harrell and specifically asked him about how he dealt with anger, and he replied that “if you hold onto the anger and the emotion that is inherent in being incarcerated, you will never move forward to complete your transformation as a person dedicated to a new way of living.” I began to see that the essence of my anger was focusing on the problem, whereas embracing the activist’s discipline means focusing on the solution. It means accepting the responsibility and possibility of change. Of hope.
Most shockingly, though, I realized that this discipline isn’t reserved for the older and wiser: even Amaya and Beyonce, high school juniors, had done it. I’d been reacting to the stories we see on TV or on. social media, clips and photos that skew an audience’s reaction toward outbursts of fear and anger. But the truth is that the people who are at the forefront of fighting injustice are not just shouting at their phones. They can’t afford to.
Anger is draining. It occupies all of your emotional capacity, bringing you closer to hopelessness. When you eventually become tired of. being angry, you settle into thinking that things will never change. So anger alone doesn’t help.
There is a state of intensity greater than anger, and that is compassion and hope. I feel that now. And to me, if those who have every right and justification to be angry possess the capacity to move past their anger, then there is no reason that I can’t do so, too.
Sonali Deliwala is a first year engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about writing memoir. Deriving inspiration from her parents’ journey and life in America, she aims to capture the struggle of our upcoming bicultural generation in her writing.