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Why South Africa? Or How to be Responsibly Irresponsible
When people hear that I’m going to South Africa, the usual response is “Oh wow, that’s cool.” It’s usually when they find out I’ll be going for a year that the responses split into two camps. The first category tends to be heartwarming and encouraging as I discuss my deep commitment to educational equity and my desire to explore ways to enhance our current framework after seeing the many roadblocks to equal opportunity while serving as a legal fellow in a litigation oriented civil rights organization. Not one to run from a fight, I tell them, perhaps the push that our current system, marred by racial indifference, needs is a multi-layered view of change informed by a government and a society committed to human rights for all its citizens. I tell them excitedly about the organization that I’ll be working for, Imagine Scholar, and the tasks in which I’ll be involved: teaching, outreach, and fundraising, all while putting my law degree to good use as their legal advisor. Maybe getting out of an office and off the beaten path will allow me to see the situation with fresh eyes, I say aloud, speaking partly to myself. In these conversations, I speak freely about my fears and anxiety; after all, I am traveling to the other side of the world, away from family and friends. But still, whoever I am speaking to helps me to remember that change is scary and fear is normal. Their excitement invigorates me to resist the urge to be comfortable and safe.
The second set of folks is decidedly less enthused about my decision to pick up and leave all that is familiar to live in the “bush,” as my mother says ( Kamhlushwa, the township where our base of operations lay, is indeed an agricultural area that could safely be described as semi-rural). “Ohhhh. Umm, so why South Africa?” they say, barely hiding confusion and sometimes worry at what seems like an out of left field decision for the public interest law graduate who seemed on her way to a career committed to eradicating racial, gender, and social injustice…in the United States. With these individuals, I talk about the universal themes I see in the oppression of marginalized peoples across the world, particularly women and children from minority backgrounds (for a completely off topic but definitely related detour, look into the work of Jack Greenberg, former Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, in school desegregation efforts concerning the Romani population in Eastern Europe). Despite all the strides accomplished in advancing opportunity for young children in this country, particularly boys and girls of color, we have faced an alarming retrenchment (some would call it a backlash) of legal avenues to improving educational outcomes for students across the United States. What would it look like, I ask them, to have laws that rightly describe education as a human right? This is what I hope to find out in South Africa. Although the content of my conversations are no different between the first and second group of people, I usually feel a bit tired after talking with someone who is more critical of my decision, almost as if I had been in a mental sparring match. Whether their intention or not, I spend much of these conversations attempting to justify myself and my unconventional decision after what has been a lifetime of measured and rational decision-making.
I wouldn’t call the second category of responses ‘naysayers’ as much as cautious realists. South Africa, despite its austere history of overthrowing apartheid, has some real issues concerning health, crime, and safety, particularly for a black woman who could be a target if judged correctly as a foreigner or mistaken for a local. They’re certainly not ‘haters’ either. Many people who ask me “Why South Africa?” are family members and friends who have been my unwavering support system. I wouldn’t want these individuals to be silent in their concern for me either. Unlike the emperor in a well-known children’s tale, I have no desire to walk around naked for the sake of my ego. And really, it may not be with these people that my frustration lies. Maybe the problem is that I don’t know how to be irresponsible.
At one point in my life, I had my next steps planned five years in advance; no seriously, at the age of 22, I had no doubt where I would be at 27. And at 27, I was where I expected I would be at 22. I was pretty proud of myself. I had a plan, I had goals, and I accomplished them despite the obstacles. But midway into 27, I began to get restless and wonder ‘what next?’ You can go pretty much on autopilot when you have a gameplan, no matter how rocky the road. If you have ever been called an overachiever, I think you can relate to the notion that the thing to do after you’ve accomplished a goal is not to rest or be content but to make another goal! The problem was, as I was going through my plan and accomplishing my goals, the target shifted and the path to my ideal job became more complicated. Whether the economy or my own changing understanding of how we can improve the responses of systems and structures to historically oppressed groups is to blame, I knew I wanted something different from the goal I first had in mind. I wanted to be keyed into the struggles of young people who yearned to get a quality education and I was tired of the government being an impediment with its laws and general indifference. I also wanted to do something different. After seven years in a classroom, notwithstanding a two-year break in between college and law school, I wanted to learn more than theory, beyond four safe walls with a chalkboard up front. I also wanted some practical skills in adding value to an organization—for all the mind expanding exercise of school, there is an amazing dearth of rubber to road knowledge that you take away at the end.
So in the end, I looked for something that made my spidey senses tingle and my heart race. Like seeing your first crush across a room, I knew that I’d “know it when I saw it.” And I did. Imagine Scholar is the right place for me right now. Maybe it’ll be the right place from me in a year or maybe the right place will be a little closer to the zip code I called home as a little girl. Either way, I am relishing in my deliciously irresponsible responsible decision. Because even if this is the worst idea I have ever had (although I find that hard to believe because, trust me, I’ve had some baaaad ideas), it feels right. I could be taking myself off the expected path of a civil rights lawyer and do serious harm to my career as a result. I could be putting myself into a less than safe situation far away from the only support system I have known. Those are pretty irresponsible things to do just on a whim. However, all my fancy talk of human rights, direct action, and upending the status quo with new frameworks notwithstanding, this feels right. And sometimes, listening to what your heart says is the most responsible thing you can do.
A South Florida native by way of Jamaica, Keita Rose-Atkinson seeks to live her professional and personal life by two prolific quotes:
“A lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” ~ Charles Hamilton Houston, noted Civil Rights Lawyer, known as ‘The Man who Killed Jim Crow.’
“Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund
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© Keita Rose-Atkinson and atolemdro, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Keita Rose-Atkinson and atolemdro with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Great stuff. Good luck Keita! People are dynamic. We change directions, our minds & our path. I think of it as growth! Responsibly irresponsible. Love it!