Why I hate my job

I hate my job.
I work at a civil rights nonprofit. My nonprofit works on a variety of important legal issues, such as immigration asylum, criminal justice reform, and education advocacy. My primary focus is on providing free legal services to the poor, as well as combating the ongoing criminalization of homelessness through citations and fines.
 
To be clear, I enjoy my work. I enjoy the variety of projects that I have, from working directly with clients to collecting useful resources to pursuing larger scale policy change. I am inspired by my colleagues and committed to working on behalf of my clients.
 
But I need to remember that this is a job. At the end of the day, I have the luxury of putting these problems aside. I can go home, to my clean and well-maintained apartment, and rest. I don’t need to confront major mold or roach problems, or worry that if I speak up, my landlord will try to evict me for complaining. I don’t have to worry about whether I will get my disability check on time to pay for my rent and my food. I don’t have to worry about having a severe mental meltdown, and if I did, I can expect to get proper medical treatment, not perceived as a threat and taken down by law enforcement. In short, I can go home and remove myself from the challenges of work, but for so many of the folks that I serve, the challenges are what they live through every single day.
 
I need to remember this because I can become tempted to let my job define me. I feel the itch of moral superiority within me. When I see people talking about their expensive vacations or fancy dinners or beautiful houses, I can start thinking to myself “I may not be making much money. But I’m working on things that are important! I’m sacrificing a lucrative salary in order to do work that helps people!” I can feel the urge to introduce myself at parties by saying “Hi. I’m Joel. I’m a civil rights attorney (sidenote: I’m not yet an attorney; results are out 11/18). I help save the world.” I don’t mean to say that expensive vacations or fancy dinners or beautiful houses are bad things, or that being a Professional Do-Gooder is a bad thing. But I don’t want to exploit the misery of my clients for my own gain. When I tell stories of the indignities and outrages that my clients experience, I want to tell those stories to make sure that my clients’ voices are heard, not as tributes to my own nobility and self-sacrifice in working with them. I am not the hero in their narratives.
 
I hate my job, because I hate the fact that my job exists. In a perfect world, there would be no injustice. There would be no poverty. There would be none of the misery that I see in my clients’ lives and on the streets of San Francisco. But forget the perfect world; even in a better world than this, my clients would not need a lawyer like me to advocate for them. They would be able to fight for themselves. In that better world, I could do something else, like take up poetry.
 
And even though we don’t live in that world, I have the option of pretending that I do. I can join the world of expensive fancy beautiful, of baller brunches and Instaglamour and vacation dinner houses. But if I join that world, then I must pretend that the misery around me doesn’t exist. And if I pretend, I am complicit in that misery. Cruelty takes the most vulnerable and broken amongst us and grinds them to dust. And this world of cruelty knows no faithfulness. For I can turn a blind eye to its sins in order to reap its benefits, but should I stumble and fall and break, this world of cruelty will not hesitate to pulverize me too.
 
There is still much to do. So I wake up and get to work. The poetry will have to wait.

Learning the language of clothing

Recently, a friend asked that I give him some advice regarding clothing. He usually dresses pretty casually, but wants to start expanding his wardrobe a bit.
 
This isn’t the first time someone has asked me about clothing. I’ve had people ask me about what gifts to give their male partners or friends. One good friend asked me to help him pick out a suit for a wedding. As someone who is interested in clothing, I’m happy to do so.
 
The truth is, the language around clothing can be pretty daunting. For example, here are a list of words associated with men’s shoes:
 
Balmoral, blucher, broguing, cap toe, cordovan, derby, driver, last, medallion, monk strap, oxford, straight bar lacing, vamp, and wholecut.
 
(This list isn’t exhaustive, and doesn’t cover some of the more esoteric words, like spectator, winklepicker, and brothel creeper).
 
There’s no secret knowledge associated with these words. There’s no hidden arcana of footwear that is only accessible for a few. But for those unfamiliar with shoes, the foreign vocabulary can make it intimidating to step foot into this space.
 
I’ve chosen to learn this language, partly by choice and partly as a necessity for my profession. And I’m always happy to help those who are trying to learn the language and change their look.
 
So if you’re confused about clothing, that’s OK! Clothing is weird, and I’m still learning too. I’m always happy to help explain what I’ve learned, and I hope that it is useful.

Voting

I was talking to a friend about the election this year. We weren’t talking about the presidential election, or even the senators or other political figures. We were talking about the propositions on the California ballot. He felt overwhelmed by all the measures and propositions up for a vote. There are 17 state-wide propositions, and numerous county and city measures. “I want to make a wise choice, but how can I make a big decision on all these measures? I don’t have the time to do all the research to make an informed choice!”
 
I told him that it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. Faced with so many decisions, it’s tempting to feel paralyzed. But instead of focusing on all the measures, I told him to look at one or two that he feels are really important and educate himself on those. I would rather that he make an informed choice on an issue that he really cares about and abstain from voting on everything else, than for him to feel so overwhelmed and disconnected that he doesn’t vote at all.
 
This has been a tumultuous and difficult election year. Many people may feel like throwing their hands up and not voting at all. And it’s true that any individual person’s vote doesn’t matter. But voting is only one way of engaging with the democratic process. The propositions on the ballot were put up by organizations and people who care deeply about the issues involved. And just passing one proposition probably won’t solve all the issues. Use this opportunity to see what important issues are coming up for your community. If you’re short on time, pick the one or two that you find important, and learn about what’s going on. And after you vote, keep learning and stay involved. You may not be able to solve the issues for the whole state, but you can at least learn about how those issues play at in your neighborhood.

13th

I just saw the film “13TH” on Friday. The film is a documentary about mass incarceration directed by Ava DuVernay, who directed the film “Selma.” The film is available on Netflix.
 
13th presents its story through a combination of interviews and archival footage. DuVernay interviewed a range of academics, politicians, and practitioners: law professor Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”), attorney Bryan Stevenson (founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy”), Senator Cory Booker, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, amongst others. She also interviewed formerly incarcerated individuals on their experiences both behind bars and trying to reenter society. She employed archival footage from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to news footage from the Civil Rights Movement to speeches by politicians (incidentally, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump all appear, and not in the best light).
 
The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” The central thesis is that this loophole has allowed racism and white supremacy to morph from the chattel slavery before the Civil War through convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and the current issue of mass incarceration.
 
The film says a lot in its 100 minute span, and it can be exhausting. In one segment, the film barrels through the bail system, for-profit prisons, high cost of prison phone calls, use of prison labor by corporations, and the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Even with this scope, the film doesn’t discuss other criminal justice issues, such as solitary confinement, the death penalty, and prison rape. The film also would have benefited from interviews with criminal justice officials (such as police or prosecutors), to have their perspective heard. But the film succeeds as a window into a desolate and painful world that most people don’t care to see and believe doesn’t exist.
 
Some may chafe at the idea that mass incarceration and drug convictions are equivalent to Jim Crow laws. The same criticism was levied at Michelle Alexander’s book (in some ways, “13th” can be considered the film version of “The New Jim Crow”). But the film does a powerful job of describing how the two systems are related to a much larger paradigm that solidifies racial categories and assigns value to certain people based on observable but irrelevant characteristics.
 
Watch this film with your friends, talk about it, and listen to each other. Even if you disagree with its claims, realize that it resonates for many people, and listen to what they have to say. In fact, I am glad that this film debuted on Netflix, as it is best watched in small settings for conversation.

Criminals

Tomorrow, I will be attending a conference on Criminal Reentry in San Francisco. The conference is designed to bring together advocates, organizers, and community members to share ideas and stories about helping people who are leaving the criminal justice system get a second chance at life.
 
As I prepare for the conference, I think about how I hear people with criminal records described in our society. I particularly pay attention to how my fellow Christians describe such individuals. If there is a story about a person shot and killed, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, so-and-so was a murderer and a bad person, and deserved what was coming.”
 
Maybe that’s true. But do you know who else was a murderer? Moses. In the book of Exodus, Moses kills another human being, and then flees his home instead of facing the consequences of his actions.
 
Some may say that what Moses did was justified, because he was confronting the oppression of his people. Maybe that’s true. But does that mean that the ends justify the means? That because his intentions were good, what he did wasn’t murder? That doesn’t seem right.
 
Some may say that Moses was able to find redemption in his life and atone for his crime. But the person who was shot and killed never had that chance. Some may say that he was unfit to live the moment he committed the wrongful act, and his killing was justified. What if that had happened to Moses?
 
But it’s not just Moses. King David was described as a “man after God’s own heart.” He wrote beautiful songs of worship. He also had sex with another man’s wife, then had the man killed to cover up his adultery. In fact, I wonder if David’s act could be considered rape by our modern laws, or at least sexual assault. I don’t know if Bathsheba was in a position to freely consent, given that he was the king.
 
My point isn’t to malign Moses or David. They were great yet flawed people who did wonderful and terrible things. But their lives were not defined by one act. Moses was not just a murderer and David was not just an adulterer. So saying that someone is “just a criminal” really doesn’t capture the fullness of who they are. If we held onto the view that people who commit crimes are not defined by their actions, if we held fast to their humanity, how would it change the way that we create laws and draft policies and train police and design our criminal justice system?
 
How would it change our churches to know that we share spiritual lineage with Moses and David and other such flawed people? I have heard people with criminal records say that they feel unwelcome and judged when they walk into a church. Would Moses and David feel unwelcome? Yes, we need to talk about discipleship and transformation and righteousness. But how can we have those conversations with people who don’t even want to talk to us for fear that we will judge them?
 
I also don’t want to sideline concerns about safety. If someone was convicted of molesting children, there’s ample reason to not let that person be in charge of the nursery. But there’s a lot of space between unwise openness and completely shutting people out.
 
Just some reflections. There’s no way that I can fix the criminal justice system and how we view criminals with a Facebook post. I can let you all know how the conference goes.