A few times in my life I've had the feeling that the choice that I was making had an 80% chance of being exactly the right thing and a 20% chance of being absolutely crazy. Joining MVS was one of those choices. I'm now starting to think that if I'm not 20% worried that I'm insane, I'm not really going anywhere.
I began my work at a civil society group's UN Advocacy office two weeks before the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. I was warned straight off the bat that this was going to be trial by fire. Nothing of the three weeks that I have worked has been "business as usual." My first day I was asked to draft letters to 11 high level UN leaders and heads of delegations. Who knew that you can Google an email address for the Tanzanian ambassador to the UN and actually reach him? The next day I built 8 new office chairs. Monday morning of my second week I got to sit in on the pledging event for the human rights council elections in the UN headquarters; Monday afternoon I built a new cabinet. (My Ikea instruction reading skills are now finely honed.) During the general assembly itself my duties included organizing catering and picking up passes for important people to attend events where they might rub elbows with presidents and celebrities.
It's a special kind of frustration to sit right across the street from the building where a leader, who is supposed to represent the interests of a vast body of people, is talking about the total destruction of another nation for the sake of his own ego. A coworker asked me what I thought of UNGA week one morning, their conspiratorial tone hinting that they empathized with the extra mind-numbing administrative workload the week had added to our office and the headache of security checkpoints around every corner. I responded that I kept reminding myself that I was glad that world leaders were meeting and that I was glad that civil society groups were part of the meeting and so couldn't begrudge the administrative mountain that it took to make a high-level week like this work.
And I think that I was honest about the administrative work—but every once in a while the bureaucracy makes me want to throw something.
It seems self-evident now, but a lot of advocacy work—the work of trying to get the underrepresented voices to the voices that can do something—involves kow-tow-ing and pastries and finely phrased letters and photo-ops. I did mostly understand this before I signed up, and I did understand that my low-key anarchic disposition would struggle with it. Part of the decision to try out advocacy work was to try to bash some of my round peg idealism into the square hole of real world policy work where it might do some good. In practice, this bashing is proving hard but is also helping me learn a lot about my temperament.
To bring it back to my 80-20 ratio: I wiped out the inside of the compost bin today. I meant to wipe off the kitchen counters, but ended up sweeping and mopping the floor, wiping out the freezer, taking out the compost and washing out the compost bin. I've learned that I can live happily in dirt if I don't look at any of it, but once I look at one bit I end up unscrewing the bathroom taps to scrape off the accumulated crud. The problem is, my job is to look at the unwiped counters of the world and then just try to make sure other people who can actually do something are also looking at it. Sometimes we might even be able to do something about the counters, but then there's the floor and the freezer and heaven forbid I even try to mention the gunk at the bottom of the compost bin. The really cool part about this job is that I get to look at the whole kitchen and I'm within shouting distance of the people that can do something about the whole kitchen; but I can't help wondering if I wouldn't rather go dive into the bottom of the compost bin, George Shrinks style with a tiny pick axe and starting chipping away- even if my voice would get that much smaller and shriller. I'm wondering if 80-20 is a conservative ratio. (George Shrinks is a Canadian cartoon which teaches children the value of keeping a positive outlook.)
This George Shrinks-ing, as I think of it, symbolizes two things I've been thinking about. First, the frustration of wanting to do real, visible, practical work and the relationship between big slow policy shifts and localized tangible issue addressing. Second, the question of voice in advocacy work: Whose voice is heard and on whose behalf? I read a Malala quote on a magnet in The Strand today: "I raise up my voice- not so that I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard." All through the general assembly week I encountered the question, over and over again, of whose voices got to be here. When I was wishing I could go give Trump a good talking to, I had to remind myself that I'm not even American. That I may have a lot of feelings but that my feelings can only be sympathetic, not empathetic, until I can't fall back on my wonderful, socialist Canadian healthcare. When I was geeking out to be able to sit near a meeting where important things were being discussed or jealous that I didn't get to go to an interesting event, I had to remind myself that this access was a limited commodity (see rant on bureaucracy above) and that if I was going to get a slice of that access pie I better be prepared to do something for those who didn't get any pie with it. Half of me wanted more than ever to George Shrinks myself out of the way so another voice could fit in and half of me was saying "for such a time as this."
I think the bottom line that I've come down too after this period of trial by fire, which is supposedly at an end, is that this year should be a fire under my butt.
I went to a Hillsong service with the other MVSers a couple Sunday's ago, citing it as one of those quintessential big city experiences. I laughed when someone crowd surfed the mosh pit during the second song. But by the end, I felt fed and rejuvenated. In many ways it is a rock concert, but what struck me was a giant room full of people prepared to be crazy for God. People that during the week must fit neatly into this funny New York machine but that carry an unbridled enthusiasm for loving God. It reminded me that God is big even in a big city, even during a big week of big meetings.
It reminded me that I am a child of a God who also loves the children trapped in the compost bin gunk of the world; a God of unbridled anarchy who loves to hear my voice even if I don't format my letter to Him properly. So I'm going to let him decide where I should be because I can shout at Him as loud as I want without ever having to worry that my shouting means He can't hear someone who approaches Him a little less precociously.