You are, watching another kid get bullied… Overhearing a neighbour yell a racist slur at a person of colour who is walking by… Learning of a co-worker being unfairly dismissed… Participating in a workplace culture where overtime is a norm and those who don’t stay late are shamed, including a friend who is caring for a child with health issues… Witnessing a protest against the acceptance of refugee claimants from a country that your neighbours come from… Hearing on the news that a community near your home town has been without clean drinking water for 20 years and the government has no immediate plans to address this.
If you felt your chest tighten slightly, your heart rate increase or your palms get sweaty at the thought of being in these situations, you might be a Canadian. Just kidding. Not many people love conflict and that is what most people guess will happen if they speak up in these situations. Even the term “moral courage” evokes images of stepping in front of armed Nazi soldiers as they attempt to arrest a Jewish neighbour and risking ones’ life in the process. Later, if we opt against speaking up, we might feel shame or defensiveness, trying to justify to ourselves or others why not speaking up was the best option.
These days we are inundated by social media and main stream media stories about all kinds of injustice. More than any one person could ever address. We walk away feeling guilty, angry, numb, annoyed and shut down. We feel impotent. It drags us down. So what do we do?
1. Look for inspiration
Believe it or not, there are people out there, today and in history who have and do exhibit great moral courage. You don’t have to invent the wheel. Find out who they are, what motivated them and what they did to address injustice.
One of my heroes is a social worker named Cindy Blackstock who has taken the government of Canada to court for the underfunding of child welfare services for Indigenous children. She was put on surveillance by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a result of this. In an article by McGill University, Blackstock talks about how she finds moral courage:
“I was sure of only one thing when I started—that I was the wrong person to do this. I felt like I didn’t know enough. I was sure that I wasn’t smart enough, and that someone else out there was better equipped to tackle these injustices. You never feel ready. But I said to myself, ‘If I was experiencing this injustice, would I rather someone who doesn’t feel ready try anyways? Or would I rather a person who doesn’t feel ready just sit there and watch the injustice unfold?'”
“There’s no clear plan of how to address injustice. Sometimes you just start with a very firm basis of values, and then you take a step forward and do something without knowing how it will turn out. I always say to people, that’s better than being silent and still. We know how that turns out—injustices of all scales are enabled by silence.”
“…you have to build a movement of justice on love. I think too many people base their movements off of anger or sadness. I’ve come to understand that the only way to defeat the darkness is with love and light.”
2. Look at where you are and what is in your hands
What is the closest situation to you that you can see a need for moral courage. Is it in your family, your neighbourhood, your workplace, your church community, or your country? Focus on the areas that you are already a part of and have some responsibility in. It is too easy to try and be a hero in someone else’s country and situation without considering your own backyard.
What kind of skills or position or connections do you have that might help a situation? Note: You will always feel that you don’t have enough to offer. That is never an excuse not to offer your voice, your support, or your time.
3. Consider approaching a problem from different angles
Not all injustice needs to be met by stepping in front of a loaded gun or having a verbal showdown with the person who has the power to fire you, disown you or punch you out. There are other ways to stand up for what is right. Here are a few:
- Write about an issue and publish it.
- Support those affected by an issue by offering, time, expertise, resources, etc.
- Pressure those with the power to make changes through letter writing, meetings and protests, if needed.
- Consider creative responses, like when the Dutch people all wore the Star patch on their clothing to confuse the Nazis about who were Jews and who were not.
- Consider creative responses such as building and creating the opposite of what the problem is doing, for example sponsoring a refugee family when groups are pushing for legislation to keep more newcomers out; or building alternative energy sources for your home; or like heterosexual people holding hands with same sex friends in solidarity with homosexual couples who are harassed and sometimes attacked for this.
4. Consider what you have to lose & gain
Throughout the course of my Master’s thesis research, I spoke with white social workers with varying levels of education and experience, working in various positions within social services about racism and how to address it in ourselves and in our practices. Very few people felt that they had sufficient power to address racism in their agency and most felt that their jobs would be at risk if they did so, myself included.
I knew that if we did not act or speak up, peoples’ health, lives and freedoms would continue to be harmed due to the racial discrimination present within the health care system, the justice system, the child welfare system, the education system and the mental health system. This was something we, as a social workers, had responsibility for.
The reality is that there may be real risks to each of us when we speak up or work against injustice, including:
- Physical harm – if you get in the face of an angry person who is causing harm to another person, you risk getting hit.
- There may be financial ramifications for speaking up or working against injustice- job loss, loss of inheritance, loss of promotions, which could affect housing, being able to support your children’s education, etc.
- There may be relationship ramifications for speaking up or working against injustice – conflict with family, friends, partners, etc.
- You could experience other types of backlash for speaking up or working against injustice – public shaming or humiliation, being left out or ostracized from certain groups, having your character questioned, etc.
- You could be put under surveillance, charged, incarcerated, or deported for your actions, depending on what they are and what the issue at stake is.
There are also gains to be had by speaking out or working against injustice, including:
- A clean conscience, which, depending on your personality, might be worth several years of good nights sleep, at the very least.
- Reaching out to a fellow human in need, or helping to address issues that harm others increases our sense of connection. Connection, is one of the biggest predictors of mental well being. Lack of connection is one of the biggest contributors to mental health issues.
In an article called “The Roots of Moral Courage” In UC Berkeley’s “Greater Good Magazine,” author Kristen Renwick Monroe speaks about the tendency of those who have a lot of moral courage to see others, not as strangers but as fellow human beings and themselves, not as a part of specific, elite group but as a part of common humanity. With this perspective, if one of us suffers, we all suffer.
- The potential of a better world.
5. Connect with others who are already addressing this issue
You don’t have to be a messiah, a martyr or a lone hero. In fact, it is important to consider what has already been done on the issue, and to learn from the experience and information that others have already gathered.
We, in North America (and beyond) have a long history of ‘good people’ with ‘good intentions’ trying to be helpful, save, rescue or fix issues and doing more harm, than good. Don’t be that person. Get educated and be accountable to others:
- Read Anne Bishop’s Book “Becoming an Ally.”*
- If you are white, read Robin Diangelo’s book “White Fragility.” *
- Do some research online, learn about the complexity of the issue and the various perspectives on it.
- Look for local activities or groups addressing the issue.
- Have coffee with a friend who has spoken about the issue in the past or whom you know to be involved in it and ask them about their perspective on the issue.
- Show up at a meeting or event.
- Ask if there is some way you can help out.
- Know that there is rarely any perfect solution or perfect people working for solutions.
Have courage, have grace for others and keep hope.
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
For more on moral courage and making change see 5 Mental Health Hazards to avoid for Allies/wanna-be’s Trying to Stay Woke