At the beginning of the semester, I had to write a This I Believe essay for my Economic Justice class. As the semester wrapped up, we were asked to revisit our beliefs about economic justice and write another essay. The idea was that, hopefully, some of our views had changed; and if our professors did their job right (as they said), we would be more confused with the complexity of economic justice than we were on the first day of class.
My classmates and I read our essays out loud in class last week, and it was fascinating to see where we had all arrived after three and a half months. Some looked at this issue from a solely American point of view; some said forcefully that economic justice is not a way to recognize one’s individual privileged wealth. Some said simply, “I don’t believe in economic justice,” while others viewed it as something to be accomplished and achieved. Some of my classmates believe economic justice and economic equality to be one and the same; others said it was impossible to define and pursue; still others said the definition didn’t matter all that much. There was a clear divide between those who fully supported capitalism systems and others who only cared about systemic change; there was a call for awareness and an urge to stifle complacency. As one girl put it, “It’s not enough to donate $10 to help build a well in Mauritania. It’s definitely not enough to know where Mauritania is.”
We almost all agreed that the class had taught us that asking the right questions is often more important than arriving at clearly defined answers. In my opinion, many of us are victims of self-interest, and society teaches us to be selfish almost everywhere we turn. My views on economic justice became slightly more pessimistic as the semester progressed, but I think I am better for it. I think our collective energy should be focused on forging connections with others, on being someone to someone else, on being mindful, again and again.
As we were saying goodbyes in class yesterday, our two professors (it’s a team-taught class) urged us to hold on to the “radical nature of our beliefs” at this age, that doing so would help temper the complacency that may very well try to settle with us by the time we’re forty, fifty, sixty. “You want to be able to hold onto this your whole life,” Dr. Barbour (economics) told us. “If each of you are not better than the two of us by the time you reach our age, then we have failed.”
I thanked our professors for providing us an environment in which we could safely question our own beliefs and opinions, as well as those of others. If I’m being perfectly honest, it was a little less daunting discussing some pretty controversial social and political policy issues in this classroom than with someone who has rigid opinions and maybe has a hard time explaining them. I think I am coming out of this class somewhat more conservative than I was in the beginning (Dad, I know you’re smiling), and I’m still exploring that.
Our other professor (philosophy), thanked us for being his students. “You make it so I can be who I want to be in this world,” Dr. Batchelor said. I so admire that sentiment, and the fulfillment he finds on an everyday basis being a professor. That’s pretty powerful.
Anyway — here’s my essay.
I believe in picking up where we left off. As such, my primary and strongest belief is where I ended with this last essay: a belief in voices. The act of empowering those whose voices have been silenced and whose rights are not honored needs to be characterized by choice, not charity, and dignity, not dependence.
I believe in the power of numerous tools and resources to spread awareness and inspire action. I believe that systemic change and grassroots movements are not mutually exclusive. If you cannot act for both, at least recognize the importance of each. While I believe in the positive influence politics can have, I also believe that the disillusionment caused by a hunger for power severely inhibits progress and steps towards justice.
I believe more in the absolute necessity to preserve our environment than I ever have before. I now understand the ways in which we all own each other’s fate, and I see how no acts of justice on earth matter if our earth ceases to sustain us. When it comes to the environment, our wastefulness, selfishness, and disregard is unacceptable; and the harm it continues to cause is undeniable.
I believe in the power of individuals and the vision of a group. Imagination and curiosity are driving forces that help provide lasting solutions to social problems, and they must be embraced – along with thought experiments and new ideas – by all seeking to make a difference. Like John Rawls, I believe in questioning the starting point. How have we come to define the values of a society? What came before the stalemate of ideologies? I believe in asking what if – what if we stripped ourselves of the things in society that define us? What if inequalities did not exist?
I believe more in theory and understanding connections between areas of knowledge and schools of thought than I previously did. I believe in shifting paradigms of thinking in order to reexamine ingrained beliefs and to shed light on our own biases. I believe humans are emotional creatures who must care before they can act, and that we’re logical creatures who must know before we can act. Ignorance is calamitous, but empathy can inspire action, and I believe that while each of us cannot do everything, we can each still do something. I believe in unity in diversity: as it was said in this class, we all can and must be effective in different ways.
I believe divisions and dichotomies are often created and postulated because putting up walls and attaching labels are defense mechanisms that help us justify action, or a lack thereof. I believe – no, I know – that we are more similar than we are different. My backyard may look nothing like yours, but we share the same earth. My family may look nothing like yours, but at the end of the day, we will both choose health and security for our loved ones over absolutely anything else. My language, religion, political disposition, and level of education may look nothing like yours, but our core values are pieces of the same puzzle. We are more similar than we are different, and denying this is the root of more acts of injustice than we can fathom.
Finally, I believe a healthy dose of reality must accompany an optimistic outlook. I also believe that no positive outlook or intentions matter unless an individual actually does something to promote such a vision. I believe in leading by example – as a community member, as a nation, as a citizen of the world – and in following in the footsteps of those who share your values. Believe in something, discover your passion that can promote good, and go forth. More than anything, I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected – and the time to shoulder that responsibility and implement action is now.
Ironically, I finished this essay on the night I officially applied for the Peace Corps! The application had been a work-in-progress for quite a while, and I finally finished the extensive “Part One.” I am so excited at the prospect of working side-by-side with members of my host community overseas, in helping to spread goodwill and promote sustainable development. I’m supposed to be hearing from a recruiter soon, and we’ll go from there. It’ll be a long time before I find out if I’ve been invited to join. But it’s thrilling realizing this is exactly what I want to do, it’s what I feel I am called to do, and that it’s hard to imagine me doing anything else for the first two years post-graduation.
As I write this on a snowy morning in my cozy apartment in North Carolina, I’m struck by the power of beliefs that become ingrained in us throughout our life, our convictions inspired by invigorating classes, passionate leaders, individual stories of those whose paths we cross, and so much more. And I can’t help but be intrigued and anxious about where my own developing convictions will take me.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” an Aboriginal activist once said. In the spirit of the theme and purpose of this blog, that’s what I’m wondering about today. That’s what I’m walking with.
Our professors last charge to us yesterday? Go out into the world, and make good of it.