Answering the “What can we do about it?” question

Last week I gave a talk to a student-taught class at UC Berkeley studying the Central Valley and planning a service-learning trip there for their spring break.  I was excited to speak with them not just because of the content matter but also because their class is run through the Democratic Education at Cal program (DeCal).  I taught several DeCal classes when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley and fell in love with college teaching, which directly led to me being in a PhD program now.

I remember being frustrated as an undergrad that so much of my education was focused on learning about social problems and so little was focused on learning how to fix them. Knowing that I was addressing an action-oriented class, I tried to plan my talk last week accordingly.  Still, the shoe was on the other foot when I gave my own somewhat tongue-tied response to the inevitable “What can we do about it?” question at the end of my talk.  I did a little better than the generic “get involved” or “call your senator” response, but not by much. Here’s what I wish I had said instead:

Connect with organizations already working to solve the problem. You can’t solve complex social problems single-handedly.  Working in groups is almost always a better way to go, especially when you are new to a particular issue.  Find out what work is already being done before trying to launch your own campaign or project.

Learn how the political process works. I attended the Labor Summer program at UC Berkeley, which any UC student can apply to.  I’ve also heard good things about the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program (for people of color) and the Women’s Policy Institute (for women already actively engaged in social change work).

Plan for the long haul. Social change doesn’t happen quickly, so find ways to sustain your engagement throughout your life.  This might mean training yourself for a career that makes a difference in the issues you care about.  It might mean finding a meaningful volunteer opportunity that you can do regularly with friends.  It might mean researching and making artsy voter guides for elections with friends.  It definitely means making the work as much fun as possible!

Keep the faith. I think of working for a better future in ways that I imagine religious people think about God.  Sometimes you can’t prove that your work makes a difference, but it is important to keep doing it anyway.

6 thoughts on “Answering the “What can we do about it?” question

  1. Linda Mackay directed me to your site. Linda and I and other members of the TriCounty Watchdogs from Frazier Park attended the dinner the Women’s Foundation put on. The theater performance was very moving.

    I am writing about enviro justice topics as well in the Central Valley at There’s plenty of things to get mad about. I look forward to another chance to see the 25 stories.

    Good wishes, mar preston

    • Hi Tracy
      Thanks for doing this. Thanks for speaking in my class this term, “Environmental Justice in the Catholic Imagination: The Central Valley.” I have been studying EJ issues in the valley for some 10 years, and this is the fifth iteration of teaching a class about them. Your approach using stories to help students exercise their moral imagination was helpful in my course redesign. My students wrote a series of short essays to learn about EJ issues, and then imagined how they would respond to them if they lived in the valley. Their final project was to create an imovie educating Catholics about EJ problems and solutions. I do think that the Catholic Church in particular has a responsibility to raise its voice about these issues. The official teaching of the church about justice and citizenship is clear. The Diocese of Stockton is making an effort. Where is the Diocese of Fresno?! There are so many injustices in the Southern San Joaquin Valley–and they disproportionally impact Latino Catholics. I am going to stir up some engagement among my fellow Catholics. It’s past time!

  2. Hi Tracy,

    I just wanted to say thank you for coming to speak at our DeCal! Your transcriptions gave us a more humanistic side of the plight in the Central Valley. I really appreciate it, and I’m sure my classmates did as well!

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