by Marjorie Joly, MSW
Go to school, graduate, get a job, and change the world. This was the skeleton of my life plan, and I have spent the past few years attempting to figure out how to accomplish the fourth and final goal. During my undergraduate career, I truly became aware of the inequality that marred the world and decided that I wanted to somehow change that reality. The big question that has haunted me since graduating is: How?
How can I work to change a system that is defective by design? How can people of color take control of, and protect, their bodies in a system that seeks to strip them of their agency? These are ambitious, and at times seemingly impossible, tasks. But the answer was obvious - at least I thought it was.
Back then, I wholeheartedly believed in the power of education. I still believe in it today, but in a way that is starkly different from the way I used to. I was raised to believe that education was an unstoppable force. If you did well in school and went to college, you were somehow invincible. You only fell victim to the system as a result of recklessness. That’s what my immigrant parents believed to be true, and that’s what they passed on to me. I was convinced that despite this country’s history of vicious racism and oppression, a college degree guaranteed a fair shot at the “American Dream.” Education was power and, most importantly, was freedom, both physically and mentally. Education was the end. Once you had it, nothing more had to be done.
With this philosophy in mind, I decided that education was the way to contribute to the movement for equality. I would contribute to the fight for equal rights by becoming a teacher. However, during my year as a teacher, reality caught up to my ambition, and my plans changed. The reality of focusing on test scores, rather than simply learning, left me questioning whether teaching was going to be the way in which I helped change the world.
After the summer of 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I don’t think I ever believed in education the same way. I no longer believed in the ability of education to act as a shield from the wounds inflicted by racism. I realized that the answer to the daunting question of how to ignite change, in its entirety, could never be found in the classroom alone. I was forced to reevaluate my ideas about education and, eventually, discovered I was holding on to education, not as a means to ignite change, but as a means of escape from death and imprisonment (Coates, 2015). Stay in school and you’ll be safe. Education as I understood it was a facade. Formal “education” in no way made your body impenetrable and, in reality, it did not guarantee a fair shot either. People like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland have proved that.
I transitioned from looking at education as armor to viewing it as a means to promote social change. With this new budding perspective, I decided to pursue a master's in social work, because the profession’s values aligned perfectly with those that I believed could be used as vessels to promote systemic change and bring a voice to the people who were often forgotten, or only talked about during election season. I was again ready to take on the task of changing the world, but what I didn’t know was that reality was about to set in.
My first year in grad school was a tough one, and the second year followed suit. It was the year that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were murdered, and two grand juries declined to indict the police officers who were responsible for their deaths. The sting of Trayvon Martin had not quite gone away, and Tamir Rice was added to the list of young black boys who were never given a chance to reach manhood. The list of unarmed black bodies being robbed of life and liberty by police officers kept growing.
In addition to these events, I wasn’t achieving the change that I wanted within my agency placements. I was met with the reality of the system that I was trying to change. I found myself with an increasing caseload and lacking resources and support needed to make a noticeable difference. I saw clients not receive the treatment they needed because of insurance barriers, and counseling sessions were canceled to make time for standardized testing. Reality seemed to keep defeating my ambition.
I began to resent school. I resented sitting in a classroom discussing inequities and racial injustice when a part of me would rather be on the front lines taking back control of my body, using this contentious vessel as a means of protest. I felt guilty and increasingly hopeless. I believed I had to do more. I had to defeat reality's restrictions. How could I balance the level of activism I wanted with school, my internship, and work?
In Socialism and Man in Cuba (1965), Ernesto "Che" Guevara illustrates the importance of sacrifice. “The leaders of the revolution have children just beginning to talk, who are not learning to say 'daddy'; their wives, too, must be part of the general sacrifice of their lives in order to take the revolution to its destiny. The circle of their friends is limited strictly to the circle of comrades in the revolution. There is no life outside of it.”
Sacrifice is central to the movement, and I began to feel that meeting with clients, attending a protest here and there, and signing petitions was not enough. While all those things were being done, our bodies were still at risk. They still were not completely ours. What part of myself was I willing to sacrifice for the movement? By the start of my second semester, I felt a bit hopeless and was overwhelmed by this question. I have a feeling that I was not alone.
In an attempt to deal with my grief around both what was happening in my community and my failure to effect the change I wanted through my field placements, I pushed the events of the previous two years and the question of my contribution to the movement to the back of my mind and out of my consciousness; to the extent that I could. However, in February 2016, Black Lives Matter activist Marshawn McCarrell died by suicide on the Ohio State House steps. His death brought back up buried feelings of grief and anger, and the question of what I was willing to sacrifice resurfaced. Marshawn had made the ultimate sacrifice, becoming a self-made martyr of the movement.
The weight of historical grief coupled with the grief surrounding current events is a lot for this generation to bear. I read article after article about the black struggle and transcendence, in an attempt to find the answers to the questions I was struggling with. There were times when I had to ask myself if philosophy can console in times of pain and suffering, and the answer was yes and no. Philosophy alone could not console me. I realized that recent events, although disturbing, could be used as catalysts for substantive change and that although I tried my best to avoid dealing with it, grief can be an essential part of enacting change. That is a part of the black tradition, from the anti-lynch activism of Ida B. Wells, inspired by the grief around the death of her friend Thomas Moss, to the activism of Mamie Till, inspired by the gruesome murder of her teenage son. I realized that I had bottled up my grief and it was slowly morphing into hopelessness. Rather than bottle it up, I had to use it. Just like these women, I had to mix my grief with something else.
“If the current tragedies have sparked movement, then it is not only about the martyrs, it is about the mothers and families and communities that organize in the face of all forms of illegitimate violence, including that by police who are rarely brought to justice" (Yancy & James, 2014). I had to feel the grief surrounding the loss of these young black lives, but I also had to move beyond these martyrs. I could only do that by coupling my grief with the knowledge I had compiled in my years of schooling and clinical practice as an MSW student. The philosophy I had learned from each and every article I had read during my search for the answers was not in vain. All the things that could not give me the answers alone, could together be used to guide the way. No philosophy nor education alone would be enough. They are not shields but tools that I had to learn how to harness.
Now, as I am about to graduate and enter the field of social work, I do not have all the answers to my questions, but the task of changing the world seems a little more attainable when I use my grief and education instead of allowing it to consume me.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Guevara, C. (1965). Socialism and man in Cuba, and other works. London: Stage 1.
Yancy, G., & James, J. (2014, December 23). Black lives: Between grief and action. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/black-lives-between-grief-and-action/?_r=0
Marjorie Joly graduated with her MSW from New York University in 2016 and holds a B.A. in psychology from Georgetown University.