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and foremost, I realized that much citizen engagement or activism is
doomed to fail, at least in the short run. The world— in all its glories
and gore, cruelty and kindness, destruction and rebirth—is forever in
process. For the engaged citizen there are no fireworks, no guaranteed
rewards or results. There is just consciousness, intention, community,
celebration, perseverance, defeat, burnout, self-care. Activism demands
an investment not just of time, but of those tricky twins: devotion and
nonattachment. It requires discomfort, frustration, and sometimes
boredom (sounds a lot like meditation). But as the Buddha said, “Chaos
is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.”
something is always in process, it can never be completed, won, or
achieved. The important distinction with regards to citizen engagement
is not, it turns out, success or failure, but the quality of the
failure. Take the lives and work of some of those I met along my
Dena Simmons was born, raised, and now teaches in the Bronx, the
poorest congressional district in the country, where the high school
graduation rate hovers around 50 percent. She devotes every workday, and
most of her weekends and evenings, to educating and nurturing
twenty-five thirteen-yearolds. Some of her kids will make it. Many will
not. About this she says, “I think failure is an opportunity to learn.
Nothing came easy for me growing up, so I have this fighter attitude.
Emily Abt wants to document the difficult lives of social workers and
teachers so the world can pay long overdue respect to public servants.
In pursuit of her dream, she has lived below the poverty line, is called
a “bitch” on set, and loses friends when she insists on telling the
messy truth in documentary form. She also gets emails from young women
who have seen her films and as a result decided to protect themselves
from sexually transmitted infections.
a constant hustle,” Abt says. One idea takes her straight to Sundance;
another ends up on the cutting room floor. But her goals remain
unchanged: “I think the best activism, the best kind of films really,
inspire people to help themselves. That’s what I want my work to do.”
Raul Diaz spends much of his time in juvenile justice hall waiting
rooms, trying to get teenagers who have been exposed to indescribable
violence to give in, heal up, and get out. They tell him horrific
stories of abuse; they deny the crimes they have committed. But slowly
they learn to trust and admit to their darkest acts. Raul teaches them
of them leave prison, find a healthy home, fall in love, create
families, make money, make peace. Others get caught again in “the life.”
At these moments, Raul prays: “Hey, my heart hurts. My heart and my brain hurt. Help me get through this.”
philosopher Cornel West puts it, “Yes it’s a failure, but how good a
failure?” There are many disappointments in the life of a dedicated
activist—so many lost children, killed ideas, thwarted plans. But the
energy is not wasted if it is channeled in pursuit of good failures,
• The system may not be permanently changed, but it has been made a bit kinder or more dignified for a moment.
Suffering may not have ceased, but someone has truly witnessed
another’s suffering, and that mutual recognition is healing in itself.
• All is not equal, but a light has been shone on inequality and made people who perpetuate it take notice.
A child has learned how to ask for help. A former prisoner has eaten a
homecooked meal. A person’s consciousness has been altered by seeing a
• The world has not been “saved,” but it has been made a little more just or beautiful.
way we understand success and failure is critical not just because it
leads to achievable goals, but because it can ensure a grateful and
resilient spirit—the only kind truly capable of investing in a better
world for the long haul. What could be more radical in the end than
refusing to be defeated or deflated by failure? To reclaim failure as a
mark of a visionary and impossible dream worth having, to root our
confidence in the smallest of human interactions, to feel buoyed by one
productive day, one humanizing conversation, one healed wound.
that vantage point, we don’t need “our” president to win, though it is
certainly fun when he does! We need to feel that we have contributed to
the world that we want to create, that we have talked with people that
we disagreed with in a way that we can be proud of, and that we have
made our communities more dignified, beautiful, and peaceful through our
own resilient nature.