“All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.” ~ Samantha Power.
When I was a young working mother of four young children, I did what many other nurses did who had similar responsibilities, I worked nights and weekends. It didn’t give you much of a social life, but it maximized your earning power (shift differentials) and allowed you to be home at crucial times with your kids. There weren’t so many twelve hour shifts then, and most of my fellow workers learned to function on minimal sleep and many cups of coffee.
It was a time before DRGs and HMOs, a time when hospitals and physicians were making big money out of insurance companies and ill-health. But for the most part the staffing patterns were healthy, with an emphasis on Registered Nurses. Except at nights and on weekends. We started to see a tightening of the belt, as payment streams narrowed, as bills were scrutinized and the Government got smart in how it paid the bills (no more blank checks). We had a meeting with the Director of Nurses, and I was bold enough to ask what they planned to do about the staffing at the weekends, since (I claimed) the money they were saving on nurses would soon be needed for the lawsuits caused by us ‘working short’! Again – what we considered ‘working short’ was even better staffing than would become standard.
After the meeting, a co-worker of mine pulled me aside to softly admonish me. ‘Never let them know your name’ she advised me. After the meeting the DON had asked her who I was. ‘You have kids to feed’ she continued, ‘you can’t say those things!’ At that time, even though we knew we were supposed to be patient advocates, we had not yet learned how to be advocates for ourselves. When you work for a private corporation, without the protection of Unions, you soon learn it is best to toe the line, to zip it, and go with the flow. A few years later we were given surveys to fill out, anonymous of course, questions about our work environment, our administration, etc., etc. I was so excited – see, they do care! It was only when they gave us another the next year that I realized it was an exercise in futility – to show someone that they polled their workers. Nothing was ever acted upon.
Most of us, no matter how hot-headed in our youth, mellow with age. We either mellow or become cynical, convinced we can’t change anything. Or, like my friend advised me, we try to stay below the radar. We fear, despite living in a country where the first amendment to the constitution is the right to free speech, we fear that our words will be held against us. Or perhaps because behind that right is the right for people to ‘bear arms’, we are scared that number two will take over number one! How much scarier when those who are demanding free speech are also armed!
I grew up in a tradition where we didn’t speak about our political affiliation, because my father, being a minister, knew he should not mix politics with religion. The parson was not supposed to influence his congregation. But his practices (like Jesus before him) were in support of the underserved, the poor, the working class. He would speak out against oppression, against injustice, but not in the name of a political party.
Living my adult life in a country that is not mine by birth has tempered my political activism somewhat. Early in my life here I was exposed to the reach of the government. I heard about COINTELPRO, a secret branch of the FBI that carried out covert, illegal surveillance of domestic organizations that they deemed subversive. Malcolm X was one target of course, and we saw how that turned out for him. You can imagine which organizations were the target, the Black Panthers was one, of course. I don’t know how long they continued their work, but since my husband belonged to an organization called the ‘All African People’s Revolutionary Party’ he had no doubt that somewhere there was a file on him. Yet they let him become a citizen, so maybe not!
It takes courage to speak out in the public place on topics you feel strongly about, especially when you know that you belong to a group of people that have long been targeted. How many of us have that courage? There was a song from the 70s that reminded us that all we are is ‘dust in the wind’ and ‘a drop of water in an endless sea’. Which makes it sound as if we shouldn’t even bother trying. And yet, that drop of water, or a pebble, can cause ripples to spread out for miles and miles. We may never know what effect our life may have on the lives of others, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying.
I recently heard another phrase that reminded me of ‘dust in the wind’. The speaker said: ‘all we are is images and words’. In this world of social media, we leave a heavy electronic trail. It is no longer the privilege of writers and journalists, of professionals, to leave an imprint on the world. We all have this privilege. And with the privilege comes a responsibility to make those images as positive as possible, to make those words meaningful.
We may not have the oratorical skills of Obama, or the conviction and authenticity of Mandela, but we have a voice, and we can speak out. We can advocate for ourselves and those voiceless others. And we must. When we see injustice and yell murderous thoughts at the TV screen it may relieve the tension, but it achieves nothing. But an onslaught of emails to the officials who can make meaningful change to correct systemic injustice may build into an avalanche that threatens to topple their elected world, and convince them that ‘change gonna come’.
It was Mother Theresa who encouraged us to do it anyway (forgive, be kind, etc). ‘’The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.” Or for those activists and advocates my version: the words you say today may make others feel uncomfortable. Say them anyway! Today I will say them in memory of the birth of my mother, one who never ‘pulled her tongue’ when she defended what was right!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!