by Meredith Timpson
If you want to change a corner of the world—or more—one strategy is to find someone who is making a difference and learn from them.
“K” students found such kindred spirits in Sandra Barnhill, Dazon Dixon Diallo, and Anthony Flaccavento, three activists who visited campus to talk about their struggles for social change. Their appearance is part of the ongoing mission to situate Kalamazoo College at the forefront of leadership development for human rights and social justice and was sponsored by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL).
Barnhill has a B.A. in Political Science from Georgia State University and a J.D. from the University of Texas. She is the founder and national president of Forever Family, a nonprofit advocacy organization for incarcerated parents and their children. The center is nationally headquartered in Atlanta with an affiliate in Louisville.
Dixon Diallo has a B.A. from Spelman College (English and journalism) and an M.A. in public health from the University of Alabama. She is a counselor and healthworker at the Feminist Women’s Health Center; the director of the Women’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Project; and founder, president and CEO of SisterLove, an outreach project that addresses the Black female experience in the communities of Atlanta, Georgia, and Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, particularly the effect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on black women.
Flaccavento earned a B.S. (agriculture and environment studies) from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. (economics and social development) from the University of Pittsburgh. Flaccavento, the former director of the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace, is also the co-founder of the Coalition for Jobs and the Environment and a founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development. ASD aims to build a new economy based on organic agriculture and ecologically sound harvest initiatives.
That short summary, says Flaccavento, “leaves out some of the more humbling, circuitous stretches.” In fact, all three guests bore witness to sometimes as-long-as two-year stretches of waiting tables, working at McDonalds or on construction crews, not to mention years of organizational work that included glamorous tasks like making copies and setting up tables. “Sometimes you are just getting by (financially),” says Flaccovento. “But the people you meet and the trials you experience are a big part of the preparation for the work that we do.”
“In the beginning,” says Barnhill, “I wanted to learn about everything. I joined a whole bunch of classes and activities. I built my skills as an organizer doing everything. You have to be able to identify with the people who aren’t doing the grand stuff, and you can’t do this work if you can’t get along and deal with people.”
In the middle of doing functional work there can come a moment when, heart in your throat, you have to make a choice.
Dixon Diallo says, “I was fired by my 16 year-old manager at McDonalds in Atlanta for refusing to throw away food, cooked just before closing, and giving it to the poor. The homeless and the hungry were just outside the door.”
Similarly, Barnhill had been fired from a job for organizing the staff at her place of employment. “It’s really a badge of honor.” She said, after admitting to feeling crestfallen over the firing.
Intention and planning don’t always play a part in this kind of career path, according to Dixon Diallo, “I remember only once making a forward-looking long term intentional decision and that was when I resolved to be the one to start SisterLove and not wait for someone else to do it. If you don’t know exactly where you are going and what you are doing, hallelujah!”
If you are faint of heart and enjoy a roof over your head with at least a couple of meals a day, be not daunted. Says Barnhill, “If you figure out how to do what you love, the money will come to you. I found that this work is something that I love. Do the work you love.”
“Just because it is a non-profit doesn’t mean it should be associated with poverty, low income, and low salaries,” says Dixon Diallo. “Commitment to social
"Commitment to social justice does not mean that you have to pledge to a life of poverty and servitude."justice does not mean that you have to pledge to a life of poverty and servitude. Denounce the poverty mindset.”
At times, the career leaps made from point to point seem random and unrelated, in part, according to Flaccovento, because jobs weren’t the object of his search. Instead, “mostly what we do is look for needs and try to develop the best response. Try to find the opportunity in the needs.”
Do you have to start a non-profit organization to engage in social justice work? Not at all, said each guest.
Flaccovento: “There are other parts of your life where you can engage--citizen, consumer, voter, to name just a few.”
Dixon Diallo: “You can become involved in political causes, serve on boards, start giving circles.”
Barnhill: “You can be a banker or a financial planner and have a role in social change.”
Finding a career path in social justice can be about finding yourself. Flaccovento states that his background as a Sicilian farmer made him comfortable with that lifestyle, yet he can ‘speak to power’ in the form of legislatures and policy people. “So I build a bridge between the two.”
Dixon Diallo feels her best gift is to make people laugh. “I speak the truth while holding a person's heart in my hand, and when you talk to me, you must hold my heart in your hand.”
Barnhill had a quiet epiphany when she “gave up the need to be right.”
Despite varied backgrounds--working on the seemingly intractable problems of the10 million children in this country who have a parent incarcerated, the vast numbers of Black women who live with AIDs in America and South Africa, or the challenge of helping Kentucky see past the environmental and economic mauling from coal mining and corporate domination--the three activists offered a similar word of advice about strategy: Find out where your issue intersects with public policy and go up against the policy. And remember, they added, "It’s a privilege to do this work, to make a difference.”
Sandra Barnhill, Dazon Dixon Diallo, and Anthony Flaccavento