Save the cheerleader, save the world.
If only our task was as simple as the job of the characters on Heroes. If only we had just one person to save, one mission to complete and everything would be solved.
Unfortunately, many of us, when confronted with the world’s myriad of complex problems have become overwhelmed, paralyzed, and unsure of how to proceed and where we can have the greatest impact. And it’s this confusion that Courtney Martin (Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) addresses in her newest book, Do It Anyway (Beacon Press, September 2010). She favors jettisoning the “save the world” and American dream rhetoric and replacing it with “a language that is still inspiring but also pragmatic- a language that we can use like a bridge over the chasm between what our parents and teachers told us about good deeds, about success, and about what the real world needs every day.”
To that end, Ms. Martin, who wrote this book for the 35 and under set, feels that her generation has been unfairly maligned by the mainstream media as “entitled, self-absorbed and apathetic.” She has extensively interviewed eight young people who are working within their communities to solve seemingly intractable problems. In addition to the good works they are doing, Martin is equally (if not more) interested in the minutia of their lives, their insecurities and and how they remain resilient in the face of overwhelming odds.
There is Raul Diaz, the prison reentry social worker who grew up in the gang torn neighborhoods of Los Angeles and counsels incarcerated young men, helping them to readjust to the outside when they are released from jail where many have spent most of their adolescences. He helps with more than just the basics-education, jobs, shelter- but with their oft ignored psychological issues. (Most of the young men he works with have been molested as children.)
There’s Maricela Guzman, a former servicewoman in the U.S. Navy, who founded the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) to improve the welfare of female veterans after she was raped at 21 by a superior while standing watch. Unfortunately, this was hardly an isolated instance. According to some statistics, one in three female women in uniform is sexually attacked by male comrades. Guzman’s organization works to address the needs of the ever increasing number of female service members.
Nia Martin-Robinson, a Detroit born and bred twentysomething who works for environmental justice in Washington D.C. as the director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative (EJCC). This coalition is trying to inject the concerns of minorities into the discussion about environmentalism since low income people of color tend to suffer disproportionately from the results of climate change, whether it’s from inferior air quality and asthma or the greater inability to escape natural disasters.
Do It Anyway is not a how-to guide for saving the world but more of a bildungsroman of the young activist. The author takes us into her subjects’ personal lives and the histories that shaped their worldviews and led them to their present paths. For filmmaker Emily Abt who has made movies about welfare reform (Take It From Me) and African American women with HIV/AIDS (All of Us), it meant getting to know herself better. She had hoped to make the world better through social work but quickly realized that this was not her vocation. “Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials. We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potential,” she says. She decided to pursue her passion for filmmaking by crafting socially conscious movies that have earned her accolades from the New York Times. Yet Ms. Abt suffers no delusions about her impact. “I’m not going to wrap myself in a flag and say the world needs my films, but I do think I’ve managed to change a few lives. I’m not sure I could say the same of my social work.”
Nia Martin-Robison, despite being disappointed by the Waxman-Markey bill that she defended to her colleagues, has an optimistic perspective on the role she plays. “I think I’m here on this earth to do a small piece of goodness and hope that it can have some type of collective impact,” she says. “Plain and simple.”
Perhaps plain but not so simple as we, the author and Ms. Martin-Robinson know all too well. But nonetheless very much worth doing.