Over the past few years, I have struggled to find my place in the fight for social justice. I have always been angered by unfairness and injustices and, in the back of my mind, I thought that I would evolve into a radical and fearless protesting activist; however, when the time came for me to consciously take strides in defining my role in this space, I was paralyzed by fear and, quite frankly, embarrassment.
It was 2013. I was a rising 4th year at the Georgia Institute of Technology and was about to embark on my first experience of being immersed in the social justice and health equity conversation through a CDC sponsored program called the Summer Public Health Scholars Program (SPHSP), an incredible summer program that seeks to engage college aged minorities in the public health dialogue. I was timid about my "other-ness" as I thought I was an "outsider" to the social sector; I was formally trained as a product designer at a STEM institution, where brevity of instructions and action plans were appreciated and where there was a distinct lack the social justice vernacular that typically comes with the territory of attending a liberal arts college. As with the rest of my life, I felt overwhelmingly different and was completely intimidated by my accomplished SPHSP peers who actively participated in protests to fight for basic human rights and who were well versed in what it took to become a thriving professional in this space. I felt small.
This small-ness was further realized during the program when I participated in my first privilege walk. Our instructor lined everyone up at the end of a hallway and told us to stand side by side. She said, "It's easy. Just follow the instructions." My brain immediately referred back to my childhood self that was totally in love with everything related to camp -- including camp games such as Good Morning Mr. Fox. I approached this activity like a game, and I wanted to win.
"Take one step forward if your parents went to college."
"Take one step backward if you grew up not knowing if there would be food on the table."
"Take one step forward if your parents tell you that they love you everyday."
"Take one step backward if you didn't have books in your house as a child."
Unknowingly, this activity changed my life. Within minutes I was far out ahead of the majority of the group, almost in complete isolation, which caused me to take increasingly smaller steps, thus representing the enormous amount of privileges with which I have been blessed. That was the moment that I physically realized that because of my background and because of my incredible communities of support, I was well positioned in life -- ahead of some of my amazing peers that were much more accomplished, intelligent, and resilient than me. And it wasn't fair. I completely broke. On the phone with my mom crying, I tried to put into words just how unfair it was. I felt like a sham -- trying to engage in the fight for social justice and health equity despite not experiencing nearly as much struggle or pain as my peers. As a bi-racial African American and Native American female who grew up in a predominately white and largely affluent suburban community in the American south, I felt that the discrimination and injustices that I grew up combating would never compare to that of my peers. And this is just in America! How could I even begin to advocate and push the needle of change on the global stage if I am always perceived as a privileged American who will never understand? This roller-coaster of thought just reinforced my internally placed notion that "they knew" and "I would never know"-- that I would always be an outsider and did not belong in this field of work. I began to feel like there was nothing that I could do to help because I would never fully "know." The intersection of my identities and my maturation as a social justice advocate has helped me digest how the concepts of power and privilege play out in my life on both the American and global stages.
Fast forward to 2015 during my Global Health Corps Fellowship experience when an incredible speaker, Phil Wilson (President and Founder of the Black AIDS Institute) shared his story about getting involved in HIV/AIDS work during the 80s when the epidemic was largely unacknowledged and severely stigmatized. He told us that in order to move the needle in the fight for health equity, we need to stop focusing on our "other-ness" and focus on how we are a part of a global family that needs to take care of each other in order to survive. He told us that as someone who was privileged to have access to treatment in today's world and as someone who has lived a long, meaningful life despite having HIV/AIDs for decades, he fights for access to education and treatment because he can and he has to. Wilson told us that in the marathon of life, you can always take another step towards social change.
This last statement resonated with me and honestly brought me to tears because much of what he said is comparable with my personal struggle of being a person from a perceived privileged and, therefore, power-oriented background engaging in this fight for social justice. Rather than feel embarrassed or like a sham, this speaker reminded me that with great power comes great responsibility because we are connected by a common human-ness. This is a concept I truly began embodying last year as seen in my 2015 TEDxAtlanta talk and via the principles upon which I have built my social startup,Wish for WASH, LLC. I am a humanitarian design activist and I am engaged in the fight for social justice and health equity because I can and because I have to. My life is my message.