Find the Labor That You Love and Angle It Toward Justice

Life Lessons from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Stevenson and Gloria Steinem

 “There are few sprints to justice – there are almost always marathons.”

– Bryan Stevenson

You’re probably someone who cares about social justice. You’d like to see some real change when it comes to gender rights, racial equity and mass incarceration. But these issues also likely feel a bit overwhelming at times – after all, what can one person actually do to change the criminal justice system? These problems run deep – they’re embedded in our political system; they’re inherited from our history. What can we really change? Fear not – we have the answer.

Or rather, Ta-Nehisi Coates has the answer. On November 7, he joined a star-studded panel gathered in New York City to discuss the most pressing social justice issues we face today. The journalist and now famed author was accompanied by Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Gloria Steinem, long-time writer and women’s rights activist.

They gathered to speak on today’s Big Ideas, and Coates had one message for the crowd:

“We struggle on behalf of each other – but we also struggle so we can live with ourselves.”

Yes, the struggle is real…

  • “It pains me that depending on the family you’re born into, school won’t be the life of the mind. It won’t be about curiosity. It will be about obedience.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates


  • “You can’t understand why police are shooting unarmed Black men, until you understand the presumption of guilt that comes from our history.” – Bryan Stevenson


  • “In a study of high school valedictorians, women’s and men’s self-esteem was measured at graduation. While men’s stayed steady in subsequent years, women’s dropped with every additional year of higher education. Why? They were studying their absence.” – Gloria Steinem

 So what can you do?

With the 2016 Presidential campaigns in full swing, our country is seeing re-energized (and at times, deeply concerning) conversations around police reform, immigration and women’s rights. This is a challenge – but it is also an opportunity to change the conversation around you.

No one is prescribing one approach. We are not asking you to become a writer, lawyer or journalist. We’re not even asking you to call your Congressman or take to the streets.

As Coates said, “Find the labor that you love – and angle it toward justice.”

Find the thing that drives you. Find the thing that makes you wake up in the morning and tickles you – and make sure that whatever it is, it is on the side of the people improving the world – even if it’s one tiny corner at a time – and not those trying to maintain the status quo.

As a first step, take to social media. Share articles that reflect the viewpoint and conversations you’d like to see more of in the world.

Speak to people. I know you know some people (a lot of people) who don’t get it yet, who still talk about women like it was the 1950s, who think the way to overcome racism is to pretend we’re color-blind (hi fam at Thanksgiving). Speak up. Challenge the conversation around you.

If we all can do just that, as Bryan Stevenson pointed out, it will gradually elevate public discourse, and it will force our politicians to then elevate the political narrative and the policies they propose – and hopefully actually change policy.

Ultimately, this is about you. When you look at yourself in the mirror, can you say to yourself: I’ve done enough? Or as Coates put it:

“If the world tumbles off a cliff – when I’m on my deathbed, and things gets tallied up, what matters is: I wasn’t on the side of those pushing it off.”

As we face 2016, as you walk through life – play your part, whatever that looks like for you.