Misery not required

Reclaiming meaning and purpose

Misery is not a requirement

Do you feel guilty thinking about any of the following?

  • finally stepping down off that committee you know is going nowhere;
  • taking a full week of literally NO work, no email, no catching up on writing;
  • saying no to a student who needs a thesis committee member;
  • turning down a request to review a manuscript;
  • sticking to the actual cap for our courses (and not adding 3-5 extra students to each section);
  • taking time during the workday to schedule health check-ups and dental appointments;
  • spending time with your family without also doing work;
  • finding ways to reduce grading time or course prep time;
  • reducing your overall department/university service;
  • saying no to almost anything that is randomly asked of you.

Does it feel “wrong” for me to say that you should DO LESS?

One of the most powerful underlying assumptions of social justice academic culture is that we have to do all the things for all the people all the time. And given how much we look around and see injustices across the higher education landscape showing up in our own front yards (our own institutions), it is no mystery how we got to the point of feeling massive pressure to make things better.

But fam, we need to talk about the pressure. It is literally killing many of us (already has). Yet we continue to press and push and stretch ourselves well beyond the breaking point because of the dreaded “if not me, then who?” And we pressure each other as much as we pressure ourselves.

Social justice work does not require that you break yourself.
Social justice demands that you ground yourself.

What have you done for you lately?

(Janet Jackson better be singing in your head!!)

Recently, I was asked to share my advice on how to choose service more wisely as a social justice academic. My advice is/was to cut out all service choices that do not connect with your clearly defined values and passions. In other words, devote your time on this ball of earth to choose your purpose rather than choosing tasks that drain your life force and do not advance justice.

And then…someone interpreted my advice as telling people to be selfish individualists and to avoid contributing to the greater community good. Keep in mind I did not say “run for the hills and never look back and don’t do your part.” Just as the broader society and academy creates systemic forces that press us into unsustainable and unreasonable service loads, social justice academics also pressure and guilt each other. When social justice academics try to draw healthy boundaries or choose based on what feeds our purpose and what has deep meaning, we are met with accusations of selfishness. Of course, this is the precise button to push because above all else we do not want to be associated with caring about ourselves more than we care about others. This is a wickedly dangerous false dichotomy.

Taking care of yourself and prioritizing social justice can co-exist.
More accurately, they are interdependent and cannot be separated.

Do not allow these messages to permeate into your beliefs and add to your already high tendency to take on far too much of what does not fit your justice goals. Remember, these kinds of responses can come from other social justice academics because we are also grappling with internalized toxic belief systems.

Reclaiming your purpose

In these increasingly challenging times as faculty and educators, we need to get back to clarity on why we do this work. With clarity on what you LOVE and why you signed up for this profession in the first place, you have something concrete to come back to when the tough moments hit. News of budget cuts that will hurt your department? Pull out your purpose statement. Burnt out from seeing so many students disengaged and dropping out this year? Pull out your “why” poster. Your Associate Dean popped into your office to talk you into chairing the university strategic plan task force? Definitely make no commitments and pull out your justice goals mission statement. 

Whether you write it out, draw it, put glitter on it, or simply type up a google slide, make time NOW to create your thoughtful purpose statement.  Here is one way to get started:

Think about your final week on this earth. In that moment, what do wish you had done more of in your WORK? What do you wish you had done more of in your LIFE? (note- work/life is also a false dichotomy)


Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies and my group coaching program for social justice academics called Choose Your Own Adventure
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