Social Justice Work - My motivation and overcoming problems
by Joyce Dowling 11/3/02
(given as part of a service at Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church as part of a lay service about their Arno Winard Social Justice Award)
I'd like to share with you about what has motivated me in my life of social justice work and how that has changed throughout my life.
I was raised a Unitarian, but I learned some of the same values as those of other religions and even those with no religion. On Labor Day, I collected money for Jerry's kids and on Halloween, I went trick-or-treating for UNICEF. I wasn't as exposed to other social justice issues or how to help people as our children today are here. Though issues were discussed in youth group when I was a teen, I wasn't regularly attending any more at that point and I was trying to deal with my own issues about life so I found it hard to deal with other people's. I also didn't believe that anything that I could do could really make a meaningful difference.
My first real motivation came from my work as a family child care provider. People were calling me, asking me to care for their children, people I didn't know and who didn't know me. Some were begging me to take care for their precious infants and telling me horror stories about other child care providers. I could believe these stories due to my exposure to providers when I went to mandatory workshops for providers who wanted to collect federal food program funds (at the time this was the only kind of mandatory training they had for home-based child care in Maryland). I heard providers talk about how they had to spank children because there was no other effective way to provide discipline and I heard evidence of ignorance about basic health and safety issues. I felt that my knowledge and care for children, made me responsible to do something about it.
Education seemed the natural method at first, but since education was not mandatory, only people who were already aware of many of these issues were attending classes. So then I had to pursue advocacy to change the laws to require education, but the regulations couldn't be too stringent or providers would just work outside of the law as they always have.
Of course, I did this work with organizations, and I first had to convince the organizations that this was something that would benefit them or that I had some insights that were useful in the work they were already doing. So it did take patience and time and it wasn't easy, but I learned a lot about people, how organizations work, what is going on in our society, and many other things.
It's sometimes hard to tell how much good you've done and how to measure your success. I did need to feel that it wasn't for nothing, so I listened to people and tried to take in all the small pieces of useful feedback that I got. Legislators told me that they weren't used to seeing child care providers and parents go to Annapolis - just larger businesses and agencies primarily, so they did appreciate my being there. There were small comments from providers and parents about appreciating information, too, so I held onto those things as evidence of the worth of my work.
It's easy to get discouraged, but I contemplated about what things made a difference in my life. I realized that there were people whom I never thanked or indicated to them that they may have helped me. There were people whose words of wisdom inspired me with whom I only had a brief encounter. I'm sure that there were those who had affected my life - through their work to improve conditions or provide services, whom I never met and could not know. These thoughts helped to encourage me to feel that my work was indeed worthwhile.
There were those who said that I should be spending more time with my family and doing the traditional things that wives and mothers do. My Unitarian upbringing had taught me to think critically and make decisions for myself, which helped me to believe that I could do what really needed to be done as a wife and mother and do this important work also. This helped me to empower my husband and children to help which was also educational for them, but I thank them for their support.
Looking back, I don't know where I had the energy for all that, but it was a great experience. But the time came for me to leave child care work and the 12 hour work days. I didn't want to totally leave my advocacy work, though, so I got involved in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's program called, "Promise the Children."
This was much less rigorous - attending a monthly meeting, reading some materials, sharing information with the congregation, and doing things like writing letters to legislators. I could handle that!
One of my present projects is going to Beacon House Community Ministry to bring inner-city children to the library once per month at most during the school year, so it usually adds up to only about 5 or 6 visits per year for only a couple hours. I try to recruit others to go in my place when I'm busy with other things as Anita Parins did yesterday. Gathering school supplies and Christmas presents for the Beacon House children could hardly be considered work at all because I merely announce it and put up a list and the congregation is happy to give, and other people even volunteer to take them there.
If you could see how this community in northeast DC has changed in the 11 yrs. I've been helping out there, you might better understand how I feel that no matter how small my participation is in it, I can believe that I'm making a difference since Beacon House is making a difference. I really believe what anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
I feel that being a recipient of the Arno Winard Award was a statement by trusting friends that I would make this a lifelong commitment and I am very happy to do so. For those of you who are inspired to take on that challenge as well, please don't be afraid to share with us about your work. I think it's better to share to help inspire others and learn about new resources and opportunities, than being humble and letting us find out about your good works during your memorial service. I look forward to hearing about what you're doing.
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