I like to think I’m making a difference. Many of us activists do. We get up every morning, scan the headlines for topics that interest us, read articles that people send us and talk to people who have the same interests. Friends outside our interest groups also notice things for us, and for me, this means several copies of the same articles on immigration, Mexican cartels and Latin America when I get up each morning.
I am an activist because I am frustrated. There are things I love about my communities and things that I would change about them. But unfortunately, the language that each of our social justice groups use often prevent us from engaging with our communities at large.
Simply put, we are self-selecting, and we prefer to spend time with like-minded people. We find and surround ourselves with people who agree with us, who appreciate and understand our passions and interests. We don’t need to worry about being defensive or explaining our entire background that way. It’s more comfortable. For me, immigration is a really sensitive topic. I came here as an immigrant and I study here with the perspective of someone who doesn’t fit well into either of my worlds.
It is easier for me to spend time with people from La Casa Cultural when I discuss immigration issues because they just get it. I don’t have to dredge out painful details from my past and lay them out for the world to scrutinize. But it also means that it took me a lot longer to present my mission in a way that was broadly understandable and brought more people into the conversations I was having every day.
In the smaller circles of the Social Justice Network, a branch of Dwight Hall, activists at Yale learn how to talk to each other about these issues. I may read something in the morning, send it to the rest of my group and fume about it for the rest of the day while others from the same group agree with me. In this context, I don’t have to defend myself. I can express myself through art and imagery of the violence in my home country, and I can use rhetoric that pulls Spanish and English phrases together, but I lose sight of my target audience in these ways. We lose sight of the people who do not hear these stories in their daily routines.
Activists, we need to go beyond talking to our groups if we want to get anywhere. We need to learn to communicate in a language that goes beyond our experiences and makes a point. The presentation of our missions isn’t effective if we only see the same faces at every event, discussion and march. We need to bring in the rest of the community if we want to see change.
And we are lucky, because the resources are all around us. As many of us were told before we came to Yale, we are our own teachers. The best part of our time at Yale would be the community of students and the people that we would meet along the way.
So go! Leave your groups and have conversations that make you uncomfortable, defend your views and consider them from someone else’s point of view. If you won’t reach out and do it yourself, who will?
I have lost friends by compromising, but I’ve also made many others who teach me and challenge me in ways that I had never been before. In those moments, when I have realized that I’m having a conversation about immigration with someone who doesn’t feel connected to the topic in any way, I learn to see myself and others like me through the eyes of someone else. And they leave the conversation knowing a little more about why I get up every morning.
I have learned the most from holding my convictions up for other people to scrutinize. I’ve learned to defend them and explain them in different ways. I’ve learned to compromise in ways that meant bringing others into the conversation without sacrificing the heart of what I want to do.
We can’t hide behind our art and symbols and prose. For the change we seek to occur, understanding needs to be widespread, and we can’t do that from within our own carefully guarded communities.
Diana Enriquez is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .