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  • Writer's picturewassa123

What it Means to Live and Not Die for a Movement

Looking in the mirror and not recognizing yourself is a deeply jarring experience.

During a late-night study session in my senior year of college, I glanced in the mirror and, for a moment, thought I was looking through a window. I didn’t recognize my own reflection.

Where I’d grown accustomed to seeing my usual self, this time, my eyes met the cliched portrait of an East coast corporate employee: AirPods in, just enough hair tucked behind her ears to see them poking out, blue light glasses perched on her nose, and a gray company Patagonia unzipped just enough for the white t-shirt she was wearing to peek out. In high school, I’d seen carbon copies of this person rushing out of Starbucks, catching cabs on Fifth Avenue, shopping at Whole Foods, seemingly trapped in their routines and deliciously oblivious to the world around them. These five AM joggers and half marathon runners don’t think about who, or what was there before their resident bagel shop. Life is exactly as it seems: a sterile, 21st century age of conformity — a life of convenience. Convenience that completely separates them (now us) from the suffering that fosters it.

In many ways, this stranger’s reflection was exactly what my younger self had dreamt of — as a first-generation college student and the child of immigrants, many of the things I now casually wear and do are signs that I’ve “made it.” I still recall days when I envied my high school classmates for being able to casually sport the T-shirts and sweaters of their parents' alma mater. Back then, and even in college, buying a simple school sweatshirt was beyond my means. It wasn’t so long ago that unplanned restaurant or shopping trips were impossible for me because I had no independent income and no allowance. I have no interest in returning to that life. I love that I can buy my sister Brown University sweaters or randomly decide to go to brunch. I appreciate that getting my phone repaired doesn’t mean I have to rearrange my grocery or leisure budgets. I like my sun-drenched apartments and expensive houseplants. Admittedly, many of the things that bring me joy these days are material things I dreamt of as a child.

I appreciate the ability to give myself the life I wanted. However, these items also feel like physical reminders that I am moving further and further away from the communities that shaped me and that I care so much about.

Of course, I am grateful to know I will likely have a secure job, home, and healthcare for the rest of my life. I am fortunate enough to be able to opt for healthier food options and less polluted living spaces. I have the leisure time and money to take care of my physical and mental health. These are all objectively good things, yet I feel guilty for taking them. I feel as though the literal distance between myself and the marginalized communities I used to be a member of somehow makes me an insincere or even hypocritical activist.

Some days, when I’m sitting in my quiet home, thinking about my family in both the US and Mali and the cycle of poverty my siblings and I are expected to break, I ask myself: Am I a bad person for giving myself this life? Are my Netflix binges time I could have spent volunteering? Should I have donated my UberEats money instead of treating myself?

Is my growing distance from the suffering that keeps marginalized people complacent a disqualifier of my care?


From the climate crisis, to Palestinian occupation, to racial injustice, and forced migration, all of the movements I’ve engaged with demand urgency. To rest (or even enjoy “regular” life) while these crises ring alarm bells feels antithetical to my upbringing. As I watch Abbott Elementary and sip wine, it sometimes feels like I’m ignoring the severity of these issues (and emulating this meme). Throughout college, I struggled with the idea of putting my advocacy on hold to focus on my academics and often reflected on how my good intentions and sympathies did not translate into tangible improvement for anyone. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “thoughts and prayers are simply not enough.” What I found even more challenging was facing the reality that my most realistic job prospects were not in advocacy at all, meaning I would have even less time to devote to social justice. Am I a hypocrite for taking a job removed from justice movements? Where is the line between self-preservation and selfishness?

It is incredibly likely that I will go from shopping at grocery stores where most customers rely on EBT to never seeing a food stamp card again. This should be something I’m celebrating and yet I feel an (useless in my opinion) insurmountable guilt for knowing this. This guilt comes despite my understanding that people who live in low-income areas live shorter lives due to a multitude of socioeconomic, health, and racial reasons. Logically, I should want to be as far away from that life as possible, but that desire to escape feels self-serving.

Am I an insincere ally for wanting to live, and not die for the cause?

Some clarity for this confusion and dissonance came to me recently when I attended a conference created by and for Black female economists. One of the speakers at the event, Jhacova Williams, a cultural economist whose expertise is in the quantitative impacts of racism, inadvertently offered me clarity. She said, “I am willing to live for these movements, but I refuse to die for them.”

This was my lightbulb moment.

For me, living for a movement means living a life in which I have the energy and will to push forward. Part of not dying for these movements means that I take advantage of opportunities to have steady access to healthcare, food, shelter, and pleasure, all of which are rarely afforded to those without a job. In the United States, we revere martyrs and icons of social movements but forget that, by many of our standards, these giants lived unhappy lives. Martin Luther King Jr. was literally shot, stolen from his family, and robbed of watching his children grow up. Rosa Parks spent many of her final years in housing insecurity and relatively alone, despite celebration of her activism in the years surrounding her death. The circumstances of Rosa Parks' life and death particularly remind me of the versatile and wise words of Miss. Lauryn Hill: “You said you’d die for me, why won’t you live for me?” Why have I been taught to suffer for a movement, and likely burn out or die? Why can’t I try to sustain both my support, and myself, in smaller ways? Isn’t it a revolutionary act to preserve myself as someone who cares deeply about, and works towards, a better world? Isn’t my mere existence and success as a Black woman an act of resistance? Why do we glorify the come-up struggle, saying it “builds character” when we could simply teach these character-building lessons? New age liberals jump at the opportunity to protest and wear their arrest as a badge of honor but hesitate to commit to the slow churning, unglamorous work that makes all the difference. Where is all their support when mutual aid programs require funding? When their neighbors need care? When their friends need support?

While Lauryn Hill’s words were intended for an estranged lover, is her sentiment really that far from the core of social action? Yes: These movements are driven by the rage of injustice, but they are sustained by the love we have for one another and our future. And so I ask, why do we celebrate our icons in death while romanticizing or downright ignoring their suffering in life? Why do I know well-off activists who are quick to brandish people as “illegitimate” or “half-hearted” supporters for taking a corporate job, yet avoid donating to mutual aid funds or even offer their wealth to ensure that others can dedicate their lives to a cause? Why are we teaching people to die for a movement when, with the right collective effort, we can ensure that everyone lives to see the future they’re fighting for?

Now that I’m removed from it, I can also safely say that the doc marten-wearing, faux bohemian revolutionaries that litter the East Coast romanticize suffering, particularly that of marginalized people. But why must a new world come from the suffering of an old one? In an almost Orwellian decree, I spent my college years around self-proclaimed revolutionaries that demanded suffering in the name of justice and turned up their noses at those who chose to enter corporate America, branding them “sellouts” in a particular targeted practice of “holier than thou” activism. The problem lies not just in their call-outs but who they are directed at — generally first-gen, low-income, or otherwise economically disenfranchised people.

As my dear friend, brilliant activist, and talented writer Adriana recently wrote, “I don’t think there’s justice in having to preserve through pain.” And I agree. What justice (or even point) is there in purposefully performing marginalization to tame my own insecurities or satiate people who aren’t even on the front lines?

I am a big believer that a better world requires sacrifice, especially for those of us in positions of privilege and power. Progress does not come without these groups sacrificing their advantages. But we must remain vigilant of the shades between sacrifice and martyrdom; keeping in mind the difference between decisions that may run counter to our own pleasure and those that actively harm us.

In a society where basic human rights are intrinsically linked to employment, asking marginalized people to turn down all jobs in principle is asking us to forgo living for a movement. It is demanding that we die for it.

The need for self-preservation isn’t a catch-all for any and all jobs. Some jobs at Brown were rightfully boycotted; like homophobic employers or producers of weapons of mass destruction.

There is no justice in clocking into work every day to intentionally plan different ways to harm people. Dancing too close to the self-preservation-selfishness line risks falling into what Hannah Adrent coined the banality of evil. (The TL: DR of the video is that evil is not an extraordinary trait, and we are all capable of it under the right circumstances.) When preservationism is involved, principles can bend, but they should never, ever break. This is the intention I believe guides my times in spaces that aren’t actively dedicated towards building another world.

I don’t think so highly of myself that I believe that I alone can solve any of the issues I care about, but I know I want to and can contribute to the march forward. However, those contributions won’t happen if I’m sick and don’t have healthcare, or if I’m scrambling to put a roof over my head. There are many systemic disparities in our system that intentionally keep marginalized people distracted, sick, tired, and unable to engage with activism because they’re busy fighting to stay afloat.

At this moment in my life, my distance from marginalized communities is also strategic; I can only affect so much change with my good intentions and Instagram infographics. I need skills and experience, things I can only really gain if I am happy and healthy. Living for a movement means mitigating my own suffering so I have the energy and hope to fight for another, better day. That is what I am choosing to let guide me. That is how I am choosing to live for the future I want to see.

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