Angry Professionals? Advocates? Activists? The System is Exploiting your Frustration.

As early as 25, I was angry about the extent of human suffering, frustrated about not being able to make as much of a difference as I desired. Yet I refused to become jaded. I persevered and over time, the anger and frustration guided me to rethink the System and how I could make an impact. It is the journey of many social researchers, workers, activists, and change makers I know. Often we turn that frustration against each other. Every time we do that, the System gets stronger.

Anger drives change: helper → advocate→ activist

This is the transition I noticed in my own life. But I’m not the only one.

The helper.

Seventeen years ago, I was at the second job of my career. My first research job disappointed me, but I refused to let this one have the same effect on me. I was hired as a research assistant to evaluate a program that was supposed to help parents who had lost custody of their children to Child Protective Services (CPS) get them back.

In those first years, I assumed the mothers were helpless, trying to get out of a rut, but perhaps not trying quite hard enough, and perhaps needing more help than they were getting. While justice motivated me, there was a good dose of paternalism, too. I, a highly educated white woman in the face of mothers in Philadelphia who were mostly Black and poor. I thought my education privilege made me responsible to help them. In reality, these women were wise and resilient despite their circumstances. They had much to teach me about womanhood, motherhood, and life. I’d later learn that my early yearning to “save” them was a reflection of my need to save my own mother.

The advocate.

After three years, I thought the project had failed. Too few mothers got their children back, too few became employed, and too few got homes. The odds were against them, they faced a plethora of challenges: the legal system, the child welfare system, the welfare system had different sets of requirements, one in contradiction with the other. Each system required perfect attendance. How can you daily look for a job, monthly attend court hearings, daily attend training, weekly meet with workers, and weekly visit your children all without ever missing a day? A month after graduation, Diane, who did get her children back, called to tell me she had lost them again. How many, like her, were back where they had started? Was my work simply useless? I lost hope in helping one family at a time.

After the completion of my Ph.D., I joined an advocacy group for parents with children in foster care. Advocacy could help more families at once, I thought. It took me two years to realize — I know, I was green — that the leadership of the advocacy group was all white while the parents were predominantly Black, and none of them were involved in the inner circle that made many decisions behind closed doors. By this point, I had learned that my paternalism was the fruit of my own perceived superiority — whiteness. When whites don’t share decision-making power, we perpetuate institutional racism. I requested that people of color join the group’s decision-making body. I was soon ostracized by the white women, and left.

The activist.

Ever since, I’ve been writing my forthcoming book: Give me Back My Child! How the U.S. System Kidnaps Children. The voices of six mothers, interviewed over the course of 14 years, expose how different systems work shaping the ‘child industrial complex’ which nourishes a school-to-prison pipeline, and a foster-care-to-prison pipeline. A horrific money-making machine built by breaking up poor families, predominantly, but not exclusively, Black and Brown ones. Last week’s New York Times article highlights this and denounces this system as the new ‘Jane Crow.’

From writing the book and thinking about solutions, Home for Good was born: a strategy aimed to shift all systems that care for children from punishment to love, through conversations with parents (with children in care), young adults (who were in care), service providers, funders, parent lawyers, advocates, agency administrators, community members, and key political leaders. We intend to engage all people involved in the system in dialogues on how to break the cycle of trauma so that families can heal and exit crisis mode and children, wherever possible, can come Home For Good.

Frustration that Drives Transformation: Another Activist’s Journey

I just finished reading Becoming Ms. Burton. It’s the personal memoir of Susan Burton (written with journalist Cari Lynn) a woman who, while addicted, was in and out of prison for 15 years but then got sober and started a A New Way of Life, a home for women to get back on their feet. Listening to her NPR interview and reading this book and her life transitions helped me see mine too. She describes: “I went from being a helper, to becoming an advocate, to becoming an organizer. At heart, I’m a rebel.” Of course, she also had a personal experience of the system from the inside, the way I have not. Yet like me, her anger and frustration at how little she was able to accomplish, made her rethink her own role and contribution. These days, she’s an activist who teaches previously incarcerated women leadership and organizing skills and organizes not for them, but with them. With this approach, in California, she was part of the coalition that helped get Prop 47 passed: forbidding discrimination, based on criminal record, in federal and state employment. It also had the effect of decreasing drug arrests in California by 10%.

Spokes of the same wheel

Susan Burton’s life path helped me see, quite clearly, that many advocates and activists, started as dissatisfied, exhausted, helpers who wanted to have a broader impact. Despite these connections, each group projects their frustration and judgement unto the other. It is the old divide and conquer trick. Yet we are spokes of the same wheel, in the journey to system change. As long as we fuel our anger and frustration against each other, the System wins. Here’s how.

Let’s think for a minute, about what ”help” is. If you see someone fall to the ground, you can:

Option #1: Give them a hand to help them stand up (front-line helpers do this).

Option #2: You can ensure they have access to everything they need: a doctor, medicine, and money to pay their medical bills (Advocates do this).

Options #3: You can trust they’ll take care of themselves, and get the sidewalk fixed, so no one ever falls there again (Activists do this).

In this simplified example, justice demands that all three solutions occur together: we must, at the same time, tend to those urgently affected by the injustice, ensure they have access to the services they need, and prevent that others be effected.

It’s too much work for one person, so we’re a team, really. Even so, we dismiss each other’s work.

Many professionals are front-line helpers: teacher, lawyers, social workers, etc. They are committed to timely response in often tough emergencies, yet don’t feel appreciated for their critical work. In fact, in the eyes of many advocates and the activists, they are the good-doers, addicted to helping: too tired, numb, and exhausted to worry about the larger picture.

The advocates are committed to having an impact on more than one person at a time. Whatever their profession, they are often the castaways of their spheres, as they refuse to “just do their jobs.” They see the larger system at work and are committed to shift it. Whether they are lawyers, social workers, sociologists, or politicians, they are loud supporters of the underdog. Their colleagues dismiss them because they “rock the boat” and fear that associating with them will jeopardize their own careers. To the activists, they are wannabes and armchair professionals, paternalistic towards those they advocate, while benefitting of privileges as “professionals.” To the front-line helpers they are a nuisance, because they seem to dismiss the importance of direct-service work.

The activists, are often from a plethora of backgrounds. They fight side-by-side with those in need. Activists have little tolerance for the hierarchy of college degrees and expertise, so in these trenches, while perspectives may differ, those most severely affected take precedence. The direct service professionals see activists as loud troublemakers who fail to get their hands dirty, while the advocates disapprove of their dismissal of professional expertise.

Behind all this criticism, there is a need for each one of us to be appreciated and acknowledged for our commitment to humanity and holding a vision for what the world can be. We will never receive the acknowledgement we are not willing to give. The divide and conquer lives in this constant criticism we have of each other.

Constant criticism is one of the ways that collective trauma gets repeated across generations. As long as we criticize each other, trauma is in the driver’s seat. When we don’t value our reciprocal contributions, we sow divisions: our unity is undermined, we blame each other instead of uniting in our shared purpose. The unity I’m talking about does not come easy: it is not dismissing differences, it’s working every day to question ourselves when we say or do anything that does not uphold the value of every single human life. It requires not shallow “friendship” but deep solidarity and commitment that allows us to gradually undo the divisions that have been sowed for centuries.

Without unity, we are weak.

And true social change, the birth of an equitable society, requires we allow our anger and frustration to bring us together, in a stronger, deeper bond. We do this for ourselves and the next generation.

Interested in solutions? There’s a lot happening in the next year:

  • My blog: Trauma is a Two-way Street is a series on how trauma dominates group dynamics and insights on how to create opportunities for transformation.
  • My book, Give me Back My Child! How the U.S. System Kidnaps Children, will be out in 2018.
  • In fall 2017, I’m starting a podcast series that features front-line workers, advocates, and activists in conversation in several systems.
  • Over the course of the next year, Home for Good will start its system change conversations, too.

To stay in touch and find out more, go to, and leave your email, so that we can let you know as new information is available.