S. Kent Butler, ACA’s 70th president

Over the years, I have come to find out that social justice is multilayered. In many ways, these layers may positively support or negatively hinder the real fight for equity. Looking back over history, I often wonder how “prosperity for all” ever went so wrong. Isn’t life supposed to involve a fair distribution of wealth, opportunity and privilege to each of us? How did we go astray? 

In this column, I want to hang out with just one of the aforementioned layers — the “you ain’t really helping” layer. Stated another way, it’s the “you seriously call that helping?” layer. In truth, it’s the “you getting in the way” layer (this last one is a shoutout to Jill Scott, but it reflects my feelings if I am being candid). Sometimes we must be discerning about when our “helping” is more about us than it is about the cause.

So, for what purpose am I bringing light to this particular aspect of social justice? To be transparent, I just want to shake it up a bit and help us look critically at our advocacy and how our very actions affect global society and the clients we serve. Perhaps it is a way to get us thinking about what social justice advocacy really is and what it is not. I want to challenge us to think about how we enter into spaces. If this section had a title, it would be “Knowing when to mind your own business!” 

Here’s the skinny: Sometimes when we open our mouths to fight a cause, we are more annoying than we are impactful. We often jump on bandwagons without receiving context or knowing why we are doing a certain thing. Everything is not a cause! We sometimes protest too much. 

One of my favorite passages comes from the novel Reckless Appetites by Jacqueline Deval. It states: “Understand how passion makes you strong, but know also when it renders you weak.” Simply put, we must recognize those times when our desire to help is actually debilitating us.

Knowing when to boycott

Automatically pulling out of everything isn’t always the appropriate course of action. We must get out of our own way sometimes and really engage with and listen to the people who are being marginalized before going off on our own tangent. We should proceed based on the points of view of those we wish to advocate for, acknowledging and empowering their voices and meeting them where they are in all of it. How do they see the situation? What are their needs? 

Truthfully, shouldn’t it really be about their needs and not our own exuberance to help? Sometimes our good intentions and particular ways of solving problems are just not helpful. This is a very powerful lesson to learn about social justice. The overarching need we feel to assist — but to offer this help based on our own perspectives and worldviews — sometimes hinders our ability to provide the support we actually intend.

How I once got it all wrong

The case of Mr. Think-He-Do-Right: My situation had me thinking that I was all about social justice and advocacy for people living with disabilities. My personal issue started as a pet peeve: the misuse of doors meant for those with disabilities. 

I was instantly bothered whenever I saw people who were seemingly unencumbered walk up and mindlessly push the silver button so that the door would automatically open for them. Sometimes they would have to stop midstride and wait for the door to open wide enough so that they could scoot through. I would shake my head and say things to myself such as, “Why are you doing that? That automatic door isn’t there for you! You could have opened the door on your own and gotten through much faster.” 

I would think about how the constant use of the door in this manner by people who were not disabled might cause the door to malfunction much earlier than normal. What would those who were really in need do then? 

Here comes the rub: In talking with folks who have loved ones living with hidden disabilities, I learned the error of my ways. For instance, I found out that those living with Parkinson’s disease might not have the strength or mobility in their arms to easily open doors. Thus, they might rely on the silver button for help. 

Lesson learned

Once I received this wake-up call, I had to pivot in my thinking. From this perspective, I now understood that people might experience myriad disabilities, not just the physical ones we are conditioned to see.

So, here is a challenge for you. Ask yourself in what areas your advocacy passions, which you righteously partake in with a vengeance, might actually be a weakness. What might you need to open your eyes to and see in a different light? 

#ShakeItUp and #TapSomeoneIn.

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