The change we need comes from the daily actions of many, many people.
I want to slap the table and yell, but instead I opt for a smile. I deflect the comment with a shake of the head and a soft “no.”
I appreciate your kindness, friends and family, your support for the journalism I do covering human rights, social justice, and public health in Haiti. But you are not helping. In fact, you are likely making things worse.
The conversations usually play out something like this: “something something and she is going to save the world” or “something something, so now he is going out to save the world.” The phrase “save the world” makes me want to scream.
No one person is going to save the world. Intellectually, we all know this to be true, but there is cynicism in the glibness, the dismissiveness. The challenge is laid on the shoulders of a superhero, acting larger than life, rather than on the busy, boring masses. The notion buries the truth that the world needs changing, which requires the daily actions of right living by many, many people.
Wonder Woman and Superman exist only on movie screens and our childhood lunchboxes. While we all should strive for a purpose greater than ourselves and work for a more just society, suggesting someone is going to “save the world” is not empowering. It is not a compliment. So, please, stop.
Worse yet, saying someone else is saving the world can lead to acting like someone else is saving the world. If someone else is saving the world, then I do not have to. Everyone else gets a pass on being part of making change, and that’s the most damaging idea of all.
The world is in a complicated mess, so let’s not waste time looking for easy one-two-punch solutions. Do not discount the everyday slog of dedicated people. Despite our most defiant forms of optimism, not even a fierce group of activists can fix a criminal justice system that locks up African American men at a rate six times that of white men and a system with a prison population that has increased by 500 percent in the last 40 years. It will take those activists hard, daily work to educate people and put pressure on policymakers. It will take motivated people to select the right policymakers. It will take compassionate policymakers to build consensus and find the just solutions. It will take bureaucratic patience to implement changes. And it will take everyone to help heal generations.
Only many people can solve an opioid epidemic that kills 64,000 people every year.
Only many people can reverse the terrifying trends of climate change and its dangerous heat waves that could kill thousands of people around the world.
That is why social justice work is often a methodical, daily grind for progress. People dedicate their lives to these issues, doing often unglamorous work to move the bar just a little bit at a time. Working for social change is a tough reality, involving long days and sleepless nights, setbacks, and a few high fives. Daunting work.
Do not ask for singular, muscular acts of heroism.
Even our favorite social justice heroes did not work alone. Harriet Tubman may have been the grand conductor of the Underground Railroad, but she relied on a network of supporters risking their lives in the dark and the danger to free hundreds of slaves. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other members of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders may not have been able to organize the March on Washington if not for the tireless work of unnamed organizers going door to door to get the word out or showing up to listen to yet another local speech. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for an independent India may not have been realized if not for the masses who were willing to “be the change” and do whatever was necessary: feed the crowds, dig the latrines.
Believe me, you do not want a superhero to save the world.
Social change requires people from all walks of life to buy in on building a better future. The work to create a shared vision of change keeps people working together, even when they do not agree precisely, and makes progress meaningful and lasting.
We need multiple voices. We need people in teams to support one another, a variety of opinions to argue and debate. Diversity makes us better problem-solvers and more hard-working. Everyone must be represented, otherwise any change will naturally tend to benefit the decision-makers—and isn’t that how we got in this mess?
First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Wyatt Massey is a human rights journalist, currently covering childhood malnutrition in Haiti. He has written for CNN, The Baltimore Sun, America Magazine, U.S. Catholic Magazine, and the Haitian Times.