Because I Can + Because I Have To
By Jasmine Burton
Over the past few years, I have been struggling to find my place in the fight for social justice. I was always angered by unfairness and injustices and in the back of my mind, I always thought that I would one day evolve into an extroverted and fearless activist; however, when the time came for me to consciously take strides in defining my role in this space, I was paralyzed by fear and quite frankly embarrassment. It was 2013. I was a rising 4th year at Georgia Tech, and I was about to embark on my first experience of being completely immersed in the social justice and health equity conversation through a CDC sponsored program called the Summer Public Health Scholars Program (SPHSP). I was timid about my “other-ness” as I thought I was an “outsider” to this space; I was formally trained as a product designer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a STEM institution, who appreciated brevity of instructions and action plans rather than having the social justicy vernacular or the debate mentality that usually comes with the territory of attending a liberal arts college or engaging in a humanities based major. Comparable with the rest of my life, I felt overwhelmingly different and was completely intimidated by my badass SPHSP peers who actively participated in protests in an effort to fight for basic human rights and who were well versed in what it took to become a thriving professional in this space. I felt small. This small-ness was realized during the second week of the program when I participated in my first privilege walk. Our instructor lined everyone up at the end of a hallway and told us stand side by side. She said, “It’s easy. Just follow the instructions.” My brain immediately referred back to my childhood self that was totally in love with everything related to camp — including camp games such as Good Morning Mr. Fox. I approached this activity like a game, and I wanted to win.
“Take one step forward if your parents went to college”
“Take one step backward if you grew up not knowing if there would be food on the table”
“Take one step forward if your parents tell you that they love you everyday”
“Take one step backward if you didn’t have books in your house as a child”
Unknowingly, this activity changed my life. Within minutes I was far out ahead of the majority of the group, almost in complete isolation which caused me to take increasingly smaller steps, thus representing the enormous amount of privileges with which I have been blessed. That was the moment that I physically realized that because of my background and because of my incredible communities of support, I was well positioned in life — ahead of some of my amazing peers that were much more accomplished, intelligent, and resilient than me. And it wasn’t fair. I completely broke. On the phone with my mom crying I tried to put into words just how unfair it was. I felt like a sham — trying to engage in the fight for social justice and health equity despite not experiencing nearly as much struggle or pain as my peers. As a bi-racial female who grew up in a predominately white and largely affluent suburban community in the American south, I felt that the discrimination and injustices that I grew up combating would never compare to that of my peers. And on top of that, how could I advocate and fight for communities that only accepted me peripherally? Never being fully embraced by the African American or Native American communities, but having a passion to fight for equity in these communities almost seemed patronizing compared to having my incredible public health oriented SPHSP friends who grew up in urban ghettos and on Native reservations be the true advocates for these communities. And this is just in America! How the hell could I even begin to advocate and push the needle of change on the global stage if I am always perceived as a privileged American who will never understand? This roller-coaster of thought just reinforced my internally placed notion that “they knew” and “I would never know” — that I would always be an outsider and did not belong in this field of work. I began to feel like there was nothing that I could do to help because I would never fully “know”. The intersection of my identities and my maturation as a social justice advocate has helped me digest how the concepts of power and privilege play out in my life on both the American and global stages.
As a part of the day 2 Global Health Corps training, we had an incredible speaker, Phil Wilson (President and Founder of the Black AIDS Institute), who spoke about his story. He told us about getting involved in HIV/AIDS work during the 80s when the epidemic was largely unacknowledged and severely stigmatized, more-so than today. He told us that in order to move the needle in the fight for health equity, we need to stop focusing on our “other-ness” and really focus on how we are all a part of a global family that needs to take care of each other in order to survive. He told us that as someone who was privileged to have access to treatment in today’s world and as someone who has lived a long, meaningful life despite having HIV/AIDs for decades, he fights for access to education and treatment because he can and he has to; in the marathon of life, you can always take another step towards social change.
This last statement really resonated with me and honestly brought me to tears because much of what he said is comparable with my personal struggle of being a person from a perceived privileged and, therefore, power oriented background engaging in this fight for social justice. Rather than feel embarrassed or like a sham, this speaker reminded me that with great power comes great responsibility because we are connected by a common human-ness, a concept that I truly began embodying last year. I am a humanitarian design activist and I am engaged in the fight for social justice and health equity because I can and because I have to. My life is my message.
To learn more about how I see and process the world, I invite you to crawl into my brain for a minute via my blog here.