Oftentimes after I tell my story, I find people will tokenize me as a sort of an inspirational story, like those sob stories we see on those talent competition shows. Many have asked me “how were you able to keep going?” or said something along the lines of “You’re so strong; I couldn’t do it.”

But neither could I, at least not on my own. I am not an exception because I am exceptional; I am an exception because of the exceptional barriers in our society. The only reason I have been able to make it to where I am now was that I have had various forms of help along the way. It doesn’t matter how smart, strong, or talented one is, the truth is we all need help. Advocacy work is no different.

Between the pandemic, the climate crisis, police brutality, the January 6th insurrection and the overall polarization of politics, people all over the world feel jaded, anxious, and demoralized. So how do we generate change? How do we turn all that pain and anger into something meaningful? Well, I don’t know the answer to that exactly, but I do know that it doesn’t happen by oneself. Just like us humans, advocacy requires collaboration with others. Because we typically think we know best and like to be in control, it can be hard to trust others, but no one ever said any of this would be easy.

While I accomplished a great deal at the National League Cities (NLC), such as publishing, not one, not two, but three blogs, it was not without its challenges. But through those challenges, and through this fellowship and working with NLC, I gained many meaningful lessons.

So here are some lessons I learned:

  1. First and foremost, I learned and refined some hard skills, mainly in the form of writing content. Like academic writing, writing in the communications world is very technical but in a completely different way. You are not writing in your voice; you’re writing in the organization’s voice.
  2. I have options. Being able to connect with people in different communications-related fields with various backgrounds, I learned that your major does not define your future career.
  3. Social justice work is chaotic work. Normally, we don’t see the behind the scenes stress, so it’s important to be able to be flexible and adapt to unanticipated situations, not just for communications or advocacy-related work but for life in general. 
  4. And when the chaos inevitably ensues, it’s easy to react. I learned to recenter my core values and make sure my response was in line with those values. Our core values are what call us to do this type of work, so it is important to make sure we don’t lose sight of them. This is a lesson that I hope I can transfer to all aspects of my life because it isn’t just simply being true to oneself; it can also make things easier or more pleasant for those around you.
  5. One of the most difficult lessons to learn was to relinquish control, which is very difficult when the cause is driven by our personal stories. For me, this was most apparent during the editing process. Recognizing that I tend to become attached to my writing helped me better understand that comments and edits are simply part of the process, not personal criticisms. I want to continue to work on accepting there are things I cannot control and not taking criticism so personally. I believe that we have to separate ourselves from our work to a certain degree but not to the point where we become detached from the causes we’re passionate about.
  6. Finally, NLC also taught me that you don’t have to start big in advocacy. The United States is really big, which makes many advocacy efforts seem even more daunting. NLC, however, tackles these issues on a local level, which resonates with my views on community grassroot systems. Knowing that local efforts do generate significant changes has been really encouraging and has reinvigorated my desire to do this work.

So while I will continue to tell my story in the hopes that my suffering can prevent the suffering of others, I am not here to be a poster girl of inspiration. I am not going to give you some platitude of turning one’s pain into something meaningful because it’s not that simple, and more importantly, suffering should not be something to capitalize on. Every person I worked with this summer was not motivated by personal trauma, yet every one of them was still incredibly passionate about the changes they wish to see in our world. So, while many of us who choose to do this type of work has been personally impacted by the systemic inequities, discrimination, or some tragedy, it is important to realize that experiencing pain and suffering is not a prerequisite for advocacy work; passion is. However, I do want to encourage you to make sure suffering, be it your suffering or someone else’s, is never wasted.

For me, this Fellowship has been completely transformative. I have gained new friends and mentors; I learned new writing skills and got an inside look at the work of public interest communications. But beyond that, I have learned many lessons that I will utilize in whatever career I find myself in. I got more than I could have ever hoped for. Both the Karel Fellowship and NLC have created a lasting impact on me, and for that I am grateful.