When I was in college studying peace, interning for a semester with a nonprofit organization was required. When I went to find one, I remembered a fellow student who had volunteered at the Ruckus Society, which trained activists in nonviolent civil disobedience. That, I figured, was something you couldn’t get everywhere! You better believe it was based in Berkeley! And, because I knew I wanted to work in social change/social justice (AKA make the world better for more people to enjoy), I believed it was going to be important that I had many tools in my toolbox for change.
Whose to say I wouldn’t need to know how to scale a building to hang a big sign in protest one day??? I wanted to be prepared and equipped with as many tools as possible.
When we started Exhale we created a counseling model called the Empowerment Model. The Model is built on the idea of a counseling toolbox – that different people at different times need different things – the right tool for the job. For example, the vast majority of callers need the tool: Validation. They need to feel heard and believed and that the counselor can understand in some way what they are going through. We validate them. But – if a caller is talking about hurting themselves or ending their life, validation is NOT THE RIGHT TOOL for the situation at hand. They need active INTERVENTION and clear, DIRECTION.
You pick the right tool for the job at hand – whether counseling a person or changing the world.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the need for social change, I keep running into people who are choosing to REDUCE the number of tools in their toolbox! They believe in less tools, not more
I received a fundraising mailer recently that put social services AT ODDS WITH social change. As in, if you put money towards social services, then, you are not working towards social change. Wow. It reminded me of a conversation my colleague had with a well known anti-violence leader a few years back. The leader said: “abused women don’t need counseling, they need to organize!”
This type of philosophy – the philosophy that direct service are antithetical to social change really drives me bonkers. It’s not social service OR social change – it’s about how, when and why to use social services as a tool for social change. Not every problem needs a service. But some do. Really important ones lots of times.
A brilliant woman I know runs the Tahirih Justice Center in DC. They help women who are facing torture, oppression, and violence in other countries find asylum in the United States. Mostly, they provide legal services. But, can you imagine how some of these women must arrive in the US? No families. No job. No medical care. They have big, important needs, needs for food, and care and SERVICE. And, because this organization cares about these women, they deliver it. Unfortunately, because this organization helps women meet their basic needs, in addition to providing a host of legal services (which qualifies as a tool for social change), some foundations won’t give them money. Because they provide a direct service. And because there is a body of belief out there that direct service lessens opportunities for social change.
At Exhale, of course, we get this all the time. I had a pro-choice leader ask me once if I would record the name, number and full contact information of each caller and ask them to march on Washington for abortion rights. Uhhh…no. What we do is a meet a need. And we found the right tool for the job. Listening, validating, being there for others when no one else will.
Imagine thousands of women who have had abortions feeling heard, connected and empowered. Now, tell me that won’t lead to social change. No, really, tell me!