Just a few weeks after my sixty-fifth birthday, I’ve done a lot of looking back at fifty years of social justice activism and a lot of thinking about what propelled me to stay with it for so long. I certainly remember moments with my activist family that were central to my childhood experiences: watching my parents rally friends and neighbors to protest South Africa’s racial apartheid, challenging America’s own systems of racial oppression, demanding the same quality of education throughout our city as their daughters enjoyed on the outskirts.
But I’m increasingly convinced that I got my boldness and conviction and commitment to positive social change from being raised with a healthy dose of justice selfishness.
I recall listening to my dad and mom talk selfishly about their pride in us – their four little Black girls – and their belief in how high we’d rise, how far we’d travel, how successful we’d be. And I now realize that my decision to follow my parents’ lead, to place my dreams in the midst of the struggles around me, was based on a selfish desire to make them proud and to build on their legacy of selfishness and selflessness for freedom rewards.
I knew from an early age that I couldn’t fight just for my own rights – it would be far too lonely. This sense of selfishness propelled me to push for women’s health and reproductive rights, to involve myself in the fight for quality public education for all students, and to do so much more. Without that focus, I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate the small and large changes that I worked on to eliminate many injustices my parents experienced.
Yes, there is definitely much more work to do, but I’ve supported coalitions organizing across differences of race, class, gender, geography and ideology to unite behind the common and selfish goal – freedom and justice for all. I’ve witnessed tuition equity become a reality in Oregon; I’ve seen ‘dreamers’ organize to make their dreams a reality. I’ve watched small towns be organized as welcoming places for new residents of color. I’ve seen equity and inclusion become a central part of departments and bureaus that previously were uncomfortable or resistant. I’ve watched legislators rally for cultural competence in healthcare that I couldn’t imagine a few years ago.
And my selfishness in the struggle for justice – knowing that I have a personal investment in creating a more just world – has brought me tremendous personal reward, which has given me the energy and enthusiasm to keep working for an Oregon where everyone can thrive.
I realize that selfishness is usually considered narcissistic, a concern only for one’s own welfare and a disregard for the welfare of others. My response is that my parents taught me that a focus on freedom and justice is both noble and righteously selfish, and that’s a good thing. Let’s remember that we all have self-interest in a more just and joyful world and let’s not be afraid of righteous selfishness in pursuit of that vision.
Even after fifty years of justice work, I’m still selfish about it.
As I walk forward, I continue to think about what’s needed – and about my part – in achieving the joyful, zestful Oregon we all deserve. I’m also hoping this kind selfishness is contagious. That more of us will embrace our own self interest in the pursuit of justice. In this work, it really matters.