From the recent shootings to racism and homophobia and gender inequity, all piling on top of our own personal daily stressors, staying positive is hard. I often feel overwhelmed by all of the pain in the world and my inability to fix it all. As much as I want to fix systemic oppression and everyone's problems, I can't.
However, every bit we do to help others makes a difference worth striving for.
This past Christmas break, I went on an APPLES service-learning trip focused on violence prevention. APPLES is a student-led organization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that connects public service and academic learning. For a week, my group and I learned about violence prevention and response nonprofits and resources in Charlotte and served however we were needed. Before our trip, we had an orientation session in which we learned valuable stories about how even if the difference we make feels small, it still means something.
One story was about a starfish. A woman saw tons of starfish on the beach and threw them back in the water one by one. Someone else mentioned that it would take her forever to put all of the starfish back and that she probably wouldn't get to them all, so why bother? But the girl throwing the starfish back knew better. She knew she couldn't solve the problem completely, but that she could make a difference, so she did. She knew she made a difference for the starfish she was able to help, and that was enough for her.
I see many of these starfish in my life. I see people who have endured trauma, lost jobs, and felt great loss. I cannot change what happened to them, nor can I help every single person. However, I can talk to those I know. I can listen when they need me to. This is something each and every one of us can do, and through that, we reach more people than we realize.
Another story was about people who kept falling downstream. A man saw them falling downstream and took them back upstream, similar to the woman who saw the starfish and threw them back, one by one. The man saving the people was doing a good thing and making a difference, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, what's causing all of these people to fall downstream? Fixing the problem up top may be a more effective and long-lasting solution.
I believe this is where prevention comes in. This is where we lead sensitivity and skills-based trainings; this where we look at the systemic problem underlying the hurt that we see and work to address that specifically.
However, metaphorically speaking, when we're throwing back starfish and keeping people from falling downstream, we have to remember that while these creatures are the same species, they all have unique backgrounds and stories. They know they're themselves more than we do, and by ignoring those differences, we aren't truly helping in a culturally sensitive and effective way.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author and speaker, spoke about the danger of the single story in a TEDTalk. "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete; they make one story the only story," she said.
She discussed how she created a single story about a family friend as simply poor, and how her roommate figured that she listened to "tribal music" rather than Mariah Carey. She discussed how people feel a disconnect from each other in which they fail to see how they are connected, similar, equal human beings. She talked about how we can't talk about the concept of the single story without talking about power -- who's telling the story, how many times it's told, how we view the person telling the story, and other aspects of that nature.
"The consequence of the single story is this. It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult," Adichie said.
When we treat people like one characteristic, one stereotype, or one issue, we forget all of the other factors at play and don't appreciate them as full human beings. This is a disservice both to them and to us.
As a woman named Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen wrote about in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, we must serve rather than help. We must feel empathy for those we support, realizing we are similar and that we have struggled ourselves. We are whole, as are those we serve.
We're all the starfish and the people falling downstream, the family friend and the roommate. We must remember this when we find ourselves on the other side.