By introducing new categories of changemakers, Dorcas Cheng-Tozun encourages readers to identify their passions and then leverage them to create change, rather than abiding by a one-size-fits-all ideal.
Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul: How to Change the World in Quiet Ways by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Broadleaf Books
“In this role, would you be willing to get arrested?”
I stared at the three interviewers before me, trying to read their serious expressions more closely. Had I heard the question correctly? Was this a philosophical question or a literal one? We sat in this impasse for what felt like hours until I finally managed to respond, “By the police?”
They laughed, and the tension broke. One of the interviewers explained that several of the organization’s staff and volunteer activists had been arrested at past events, most recently at a demonstration that involved blocking a highway on-ramp to call attention to their cause. The expectation wasn’t that I would run headlong into trouble—rather, would I be willing to stand my ground in a peaceful protest, knowing that it was for the greater good?
I gave an evasive, shaky answer, citing my admiration of John Lewis’ call for “good trouble, necessary trouble,” agreeing that there was validity to Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” and finally declaring that I trusted in any activist’s judgment to make the right call in such a heated situation. There was a pause as my interviewers finished jotting down their notes, and I braced myself, dreading that they would ask me to answer the question once and for all: would I be willing to get arrested, yes or no?
Here’s the thing: I was not, and still am not, a particularly confrontational person. I’m a deeply sensitive, shy introvert that can spend unnaturally long stretches of time reading a book or writing and not feel the need to say a word aloud to anyone. When I do interact with other people, I mainly try and make them feel happy, and I’m usually best at doing so through my writing. Anything beyond that drains me—the idea that I might have to confront authority figures in such a public and potentially dangerous way not only sounded like a nightmare but didn’t seem to line up with the communications role I was interviewing for. Would admitting as much ruin my chances? To my relief, the conversation moved on, and a few weeks later, I got the job offer.
Throughout the years I spent working in advocacy organizations, I was plagued by the nagging implication that my work as a communications staffer, while it matched my natural skills and felt quite fulfilling to me, somehow wasn’t enough of a contribution to “the cause.” This is the idea that Dorcas Cheng-Tozun explores in her new book, Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul. Cheng-Tozun identifies the viewpoint that has long beset those working in social advocacy roles:
Advocates for progress come in all forms. Social change is propelled by many people doing many different things that nudge us toward fairer and more inclusive societies. Yet many of us persist in thinking that some approaches are better than others, more real than others, more legitimate than others. We imagine that there is a quintessential version of what an activist should be like and what that activist should do.
Logically, I knew my work behind the scenes—staying back at the office writing everything from grant applications to press releases while others took to the streets—was necessary and that we all relied on each other to function within this ecosystem. Still, I doubted if it was enough and found myself heading out to marches and demonstrations, hoping to build up my activist cred further.
The perfect activist, it seemed, was the one who could rally a crowd at a moment’s notice with a bullhorn in hand, the one who would have confidently answered yes when asked if they were willing to get arrested and maybe already had some thrilling arrest stories to share. Cheng-Tozun calls this the Activist Ideal, which paints a picture of a fearless, highly extroverted changemaker willing to confront oppressive societal forces relentlessly, even at the cost of their health and safety.
Though only some of our staffers held the official job title of “community organizer,” the expectation outlined in that initial interview of being ready and willing to drop everything and take to the streets without hesitation loomed over everything else. Cheng-Tozun notes:
Many societies, particularly Western societies in North America and Europe, lavish praise on warrior-king types. In these societies, aggression and outspokenness are respected and rewarded in nearly every sphere of life: business, academics, politics, sports, religion, and more. Those who speak louder, faster, and more often are considered stronger leaders and more knowledgeable experts. Our societies place trust in those who act with self-confidence and assertiveness.
The experience of getting out of the office to join a demonstration occasionally wasn’t entirely bad—by stepping out of my comfort zone, I made some great friends and witnessed inspiring moments at the front lines of our marches. Still, I recognized I couldn’t withstand as much public-facing work as my more extroverted peers. I couldn’t so quickly shake off the mental exhaustion of being at the heart of highly emotional situations. I hoped I would eventually build up a callus and grow accustomed to the stress, but instead, I was burning out.
Before long, I started hopping from one social justice organization to another, hoping to find a place to settle in where I could still make a difference without so much palpable tension. Instead, I kept running into the expectation that this kind of paradigm-shifting work required deep sacrifice, so I kept trying to push my limits in pursuit of the Activist Ideal. Cheng-Tozun writes:
We have created a culture of all or nothing: You are either fully in it—heart, mind, body, and soul, no matter the pain, sacrifices, or consequences—or your contribution doesn’t matter.
I soon started to realize that many of my friends and colleagues—introverts and extroverts alike—that had once been lauded as civil rights champions in the community had quietly exited the advocacy arena or were planning on doing so, finding work at organizations where the stakes didn’t feel so relentlessly high. Many of those who remained seemed worryingly detached from reality. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I once witnessed coworkers swapping war stories on a Zoom call, recounting instances of dehydration and exhaustion, undiagnosable bodily ailments, insomnia, panic attacks, and other stress-induced afflictions as if they were not only a normal part of the job, but something to be proud of.
And yet, it didn’t seem like any of these efforts were producing any net-positive change in the world—if anything, it felt like the world around us was getting worse. People who had once been healthy and optimistic were becoming sick and hopeless. We all seemed to be following the same, supposedly tried-and-true activist playbook, yet we all seemed to be suffering for it. If we, the so-called changemakers, were failing to thrive, how could we expect anything better for anyone else? Cheng-Tozun writes:
The cost of burnout is enormous for the individual experiencing it, but it also deeply hurts the very movements and societies we’re trying to serve. Many who burn out are forced to significantly reduce their participation or withdraw from justice-oriented work altogether. Their voices, perspectives, skills, gifts, and wisdom become lost to us—and the generations after us.
Because the Activist Ideal is so entrenched in our collective narrative, it can be difficult to visualize what any alternative looks like. To address this, Cheng-Tozun shares the story of Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols’ meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. Nichols had lamented her inability to join King at the front lines of the ongoing civil rights marches and was surprised to hear King respond, “We don’t need you to march. You are marching.”
Dr. King went on to say that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife allowed their children to stay up late watching. And they watched because of Nichols—one of the only Black women on television portraying a strong and brilliant leader highly respected by all her colleagues, whether they were white men or aliens from a distant planet […] Nichelle Nichols’s work as an actress, which at first glance might seem inconsequential compared to the efforts of those marching, sitting at lunch counters, and registering voters, actually contributed meaningfully to the civil rights movement and social progress on a national scale. She did not need to march in the streets. She was, as Dr. King said, already marching in her own way—by showing an entire nation what was true and what was possible.
Where Parts I and II of the book offer space for the reader to engage in self-reflection—from understanding their strengths and limitations to getting in touch with what motivates them to engage in social justice work in the first place—Part III explores alternative paths for changemakers that go beyond the Activist Ideal.
There are connectors who are skilled are building and strengthening interpersonal ties within their communities. There are creatives who use art to elevate the voices of marginalized communities and lift the spirits of others working toward change. There are record keepers who retain the knowledge of the past to inform how we approach social issues in the future. There are builders who develop new technologies that improve the quality of life for others. There are equippers—educators and mentors who pass down the necessary knowledge for individuals to be effective changemakers. Finally, there are the researchers, those who ground themselves in experimentation and data collection to understand the world better and thus challenge the status quo.
By introducing these new categories of changemakers, Cheng-Tozun encourages readers to identify their passions and then leverage them to create change rather than abiding by a one-size-fits-all ideal:
The particular mix of gifts, traits, interests, and passions that make you so unique will undoubtedly lead you to unexpected places, unknown places, unrecognizable places. You may find yourself advocating for the social good in unusual ways. If so, you may very well have found exactly what you were meant to do.
It’s been several years since I left direct social advocacy behind as a career, and I am still slowly detaching from the notion of the Activist Ideal. Sometimes it feels odd to recognize that I spend most of my waking hours in a safe and quiet space, reading books—a joyful activity, not a sacrificial one. It feels like a luxury that I no longer spend my time after work decompressing from one stressful day and bracing myself for the next one, that I get to just be present in the moment in the company of my loved ones. I derive endless satisfaction from my work these days, thrilled to use my abilities as a writer to elevate the brilliant, thought-provoking works of other writers—and yet I still find myself asking, is any of this enough to change the world?
But perhaps this isn’t the right question to ask anyway. “It is not your responsibility to save the world,” Cheng-Tozun writes in the book’s final pages.
It is, however, your responsibility to be the best, most authentic version of yourself that you know to be, and, when you are able and ready, to let the rest of us revel in the goodness that you have to offer.
When the sensitive and empathic among us are able to find themselves and share that for the sake of humanity, I believe the world can’t help but become a little more bright and beauteous.