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Advocacy, Mission, and Social Justice Tribalism

Photo via Unsplash

I've considered myself a social justice advocate for a long time, but, unsurprisingly to those who follow me here, my "main cause" for the last 4-5 years has been supply chain ethics in the fashion industry. Exploitation, indentured servitude, rape, exposure to dangerous work environments, and outright slavery occur every single day in the global manufacturing industry. They must be brought to light because they are fundamental human rights issues that cannot be tolerated if we claim to seek justice and peace.

Of course, the question for me and thousands of others living in places like the US is, "What can I actually do?" Physical separation from the point of exploitation, lack of education around global politics and trade, and limited individual power seemingly make us ill suited for this type of advocacy. Do we need to get in there, starting our own NGOs and social enterprises and traveling to crisis points to learn the full story?

I believe anecdotal evidence and personal experience matter. But I don't think it's practical, environmentally friendly, or culturally sensitive to keep sending over a whole bunch of spirit-filled white ladies to Cambodia, Uganda, or Bangladesh. So we do what we can from over here. We're missionaries to the lost souls of fast fashion right where we're planted, hopefully helping people understand connection, complicity, and corruption in a way that is accessible, in a way that helps them consider their consumer choices and political frameworks in order to advocate more effectively for change.

Before I continue, I have to admit that my religious upbringing gently pushed me toward a certain type of advocacy. American Evangelical Christianity is a funny thing, one that often overlooks domestic cracks and fissures in favor of "those poor people over there." Missionary tradition (*cough cough* imperialism) always, without fail, creates an us versus them mentality that sees people in terms of "the saved" and "the lost." American values, the thought goes, are basically good, rooted as they are in our faith tradition, so the people right here have no excuse for not believing the way we do, but those poor, innocent [insert stereotyped "third world" country here] need to hear our message of love and liberty.

Christians are encouraged in the Gospel of Mark to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." American social justice warriors have interpreted this to mean that they need passports to do the Lord's work.

But since Inauguration Day and the Women's March, I've felt an increasing obligation to fight for the rights of women, people of color, the impoverished, LGBTQ folks, and other marginalized groups in my own country. You could easily start a pissing contest over how woke you were before it was cool at this point. I'll readily admit that I wasn't paying that much attention to racial dynamics, police brutality, violence against trans people, or even the ways women continue to be ignored and under-valued in this "free" "melting pot" of a country.

The town I live in is preparing to be assaulted by a Ku Klux Klan rally this Saturday and another "alt-right" rally later in the summer. Injustice and intimidation are, quite literally, close to home in a way I haven't experienced before. I'm not concerned for my own safety (ok, maybe a little), but I'm angry that a known hate group would be allowed to march in to my town with no other goal but to scare the crap out of our African American citizens, other people of color, and City Council members, who voted a few months ago with support from the local community to remove Confederate monuments from the city center.

I don't have enough energy to be everywhere and advocate for everything, and lately I've been wondering what I should be doing. Doesn't it make more sense to promote advocacy work that directly affects my own community than to fight the good fight for people across the world?

I haven't arrived at a confident conclusion, but this is what I know:

I've worked and read and listened and networked in the ethical fashion space for 4 years now. For me, it doesn't make sense to toss that aside in favor of issues that may feel more pressing now, but will still take years - lifetimes even - of committed advocacy to resolve. Instead, I'm taking the long view on ethical fashion advocacy and trying to save my sprinting energy for immediate, local work. When the KKK comes to town, I'm joining up with local groups to make paper cranes for an art installation and praying my heart out for them when I'm not able to attend events. I'm doing what I can to stay out of the way, and to clear a path, for the longterm advocates to do their thing. I'm yelling at everyone I know to vote, and vote well. To stay informed. To know their worth as citizens, and act like they matter. I'm observing social dynamics in my workplace, and learning all I can about the best ways to resolve individual differences and dissolve prejudice before it gets a chokehold around people's hearts.

You and I can't be everything to everyone. We can't be the hero for every cause. But we should, absolutely, take time to consider and recalibrate our priorities. My advocacy for "people over there" does not negate my daily obligation to people right here. My training toward a certain type of social justice work doesn't mean I shouldn't listen to others, or be willing to change my mind.

The hostile, cold hearted parties in power want to distract us from the good. I encourage you to go out and seek the good wherever it can be found. I encourage you to stop with the pissing matches over who's the best social justice warrior, choosing instead to interlock your fingers with anyone else on a path toward mutually assured life and liberty. Your cause matters. My cause matters. Let's share them, learn from each other's triumphs and failures, listen well.

Let's lay down our weapons of self righteousness and get shit done.

Oh yeah, and happy 4th.


Related Reading: American Dreams

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