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When I tell people I walked 500 miles (800km) across Spain in 2013, the first thing they ask (in a slightly astonished voice) is: How long did that take you? The answer to this question is surprising, and it parallels how we proceed toward equality for all people. 

It took me 49 days. Some people complete the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 30. But—and this is important—no one really knows for certain how long it will take. Even with a plan, the map is not the territory. I found steep hills more challenging than expected. A fresh rain would leave the path slicked with mud. An acquaintance injured his knee, stopped walking, and bussed to Santiago. Unexpected events require reconsideration of the plan. 

The same holds true for civic engagement. Even when we make a plan, obstacles arise. Elected officials vote unexpectedly. Hearts change. We have an idea of what justice is, but we can’t conceive of how long it will take to get there. 

Some of us don’t cope well with not knowing, especially if unaccustomed to uncertainty. I’ll never forget how a pilgrim friend grew irate the day he discovered the Camino’s mile markers were misnumbered, putting us almost 10 miles (17km) from our day’s destination. He fumed, but we still had to walk. 

We feel this anger in civic engagement when things don’t go as planned. Or someone moves the goalposts with new laws that restrict voting access to millions. Too much frustration makes most people want to stop.

One example of this uphill journey is reflected in the LGBTQ+ community’s story (of which I’m a part). Back in 1969, the Stonewall Riots arose in response to police arresting the gay residents of New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1970, four US cities had their first ever Pride marches. By 1973, parents founded PFLAG to support their gay kids’ rights. As people organized, no outcome of justice or equality was ever guaranteed.

Gradually, little by little, people came out, stopped hiding their identities, and advocated for their rights. The people who loved them woke up to injustice. Each action, each conversation was a step toward freedom, even when met with fear, hatred, and violence. 30 years of wins and losses later, public sentiment finally changed enough to make marriage between people of the same sex legal and equal in the US. Thirty years.

Change is slow. When it comes to movements that stretch over decades, the question of “how long does it take?” isn’t the most useful one. Instead we can ask: how do we get there? What small act can I do today that brings us incrementally closer?

On my pilgrimage one afternoon, the wind pelted me with slush balls as I hiked up a mountain. I took that hill one step at a time. Near Santiago, I met a pilgrim in a wheelchair who took her journey one roll at a time. Just as a journey of 500 miles begins with a single step, progress is made up of thousands of small steps. 

Today, the U.S. Constitution still doesn’t protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people. While many states and smaller jurisdictions do protect against firing and eviction, LGBTQ+ folks do not have federal protection. This week’s Checklist includes an action to advocate for legislation that will change this. Will this bill pass? We don’t know. But experience shows that advocacy works over the long term, and the more people engaged, the better.

How long does it take to get there? As long as it takes.

It’s important to note how many people feel weary about what’s happening in the world. We marvel at Ukrainian courage and leaders we admire, but some days it feels like too much. If this sounds like you, consider what Sharon Welch wrote in her book, Ethic of Risk,

“Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible…” 

We can’t achieve everything we want instantly—any more than a 500-mile pilgrimage can be completed in a day. Small steps. Taken frequently. We need you on this path, taking steps, and celebrating efforts on this long but worthwhile journey. 

What can you do today to ensure further action is possible?

Please write your reflections in the comments.

Also, I’m preparing a talk this month about climbing steep “hills” like climate, injustice, and polarization. Please join me on Friday, April 8, 2022 from 10:30-12pm Pacific. There is no cost to attend, and contributions are welcome. To get details, send a message to https://jenniferhofmann.com/contact/.

17 Comments

  1. Recognizing that we living through/in a time of drastic change and as Eric Hoffer said “it’s the learners who inherit the future” daily I recognize I am always learning and things are always changing abc I will never give up.

    Thanks for allllll you do Jenn.

    • These are such wise words. Thank you for sharing them, Amy. Sometimes the learning is even fun!

  2. Thanks, Jen. You have been doing such great work for a long time.
    I will be on the road but would love to hear your April 8th talk. If you’re recording it, please let us know.
    Thanks,
    Laura

  3. Looking forward to more info and more inspirational articles re: staying involved. Been pretty discouraged recently.

    • You are not alone at all in your discouragement. That’s partly why I wrote this article — so many people are overwhelmed to the point of immobilization. We can’t eat the whole huge watermelon in one sitting, but a snack size might be manageable. Or a nap. Naps are good too.

      I write an inspiring message like this at least once per month, but if you’re interested in attending (or listening to the recording) of my talk on April 8th, be sure to send your contact info here: https://jenniferhofmann.com/contact/

      • Thanks for this message, Jen and thank you for continuing to do the work you do. I REALLY needed the reminder and encouragement this week that progress is incremental and feels very elusive when you’re in the middle of rapidly moving events.

        The war and the suffering of the Ukrainian people has been terrible to watch and read about. I notice that it’s been making me feel pretty sad and overwhelmed, which of course is because these crimes against humanity are horrific in scope. We should feel sad! Sharon Welch’s words about “the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible…” are helpful. I need to read her book.

        • Thank you for the kind words — they are encouragement for me and our team too. Giving ourselves space to feel sad–and the whole range of emotions–is profoundly important. For me, my heart is a powerful tool in my work.

          Some find Welch’s work quite dense, but profound. If you want an overview, I regularly point people to a resource from the Unitarian Universalist church regarding her work and message: https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/ethics/workshop9/192044.shtml

    • Thank YOU too! In reality, I give up about every three months, reset, and come back to it. The AoCC team is a supportive one, so I know I’m not alone. This leaves room for an ebb and flow in engagement that makes it sustainable for me — and I wish that for all people as we move toward justice.

      • Jen, thank you very much for sharing that. My only exposure to you/your work is via email and you and your team always sound so positive, determined and hopeful. Bizarrely, it’s good to know that this really does ebb and flow and sometimes requires full disconnection for ypu (and others im certain) to keep doing the work. If writing more about that is something you’d consider, I’d appreciate reading it! No pressure if not, I am not sure if I’d want to share those personal details with potential haters (ie the internet) either!

        • Thanks for the compliments and the topic suggestion, Chris! Thinking of civic engagement as a natural process with seasons of growth and decline helps me a lot. It’s a more realistic frame than launching a military campaign, for example. Accepting that spring and summer (growth and progress) comes with fall and winter (reflection and renewal), makes engagement sustainable.

          I’m an open book and always write for the lovers, not the haters. 🙂 I hope you’ll consider attending the talk I’m giving on April 8. You may find it relevant to your questions!

  4. I know many folks who are weary from years of activism (including me, some days) who might find this metaphor helpful. Will be sharing!

    • Metaphor and storytelling are useful to measure slow change and reframe it not as failure, but as perseverance. Hugs for the weariness. It is real.

  5. Intermittent weariness is part of any journey, isn’t it? Indeed – we have to take our activism one step at a time. Something that has been helping me is getting outside and cleaning up litter, one step at a time. I joined AdoptOneBlock.org in December (a free program in OR and WA), and getting outside, seeing an immediate effect from my efforts, and actually perceiving the long-term improvement in my environment is a real spirit lift! It energizes me to then sit at the computer and do the on-line work of being an activist. Thank you Jen, for all you do, and for creating this community. One step at a time.

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