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The Dangers of Drinking Coffee Alone: The Precarity and Isolation of Social Justice Work

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

What does it mean to “have a coffee?” It is a fairly universal expression – but it is not just a verb, it is an event. An invitation. To “have a coffee,” means to get together with someone and talk. This talking may be about work. Or family. Or politics. Or your latest crush. You may be complaining or conspiring or commiserating and there may, or may not, be coffee involved. I have “had a coffee” in bars and in parks as well as in coffee shops. What distinguishes “drinking coffee” from “having a coffee” is setting aside the time to connect with someone in an unscripted manner. It is in this space that ideas flow, relationships strengthen and trust is maintained. After having a coffee, I go back to my life of work, family and revolution knowing that I have shared and am not alone. I return rejuvenated with connection.

I am a loud, self-driven and fairly charismatic woman. I thrive personally, professionally, intellectually by engaging with others. I am known as “a connector” in most aspects of my life – bringing together what, on the surface, appears like disparate ideas, disciplines, organizations and people, and it is something in which I take pride. Building and sustaining connections with institutions and communities is my strength, passion and calling. Yet, on a weekly basis, I spend nearly two-thirds of my waking hours alone — often facilitating email introductions between two people so that they can meet.

The irony is not lost on me, nor is my experience unique.

Social isolation and social justice are perhaps odd, but not unusual, bedfellows. Many of us complain that with the advent of social media and portable wired electronics, community ties have shriveled. But this phenomenon is not new. Heralded as one of the greatest human rights activists in the 20th century, Raphael Lemkin, the father of the term “genocide” and the architect behind the United Nations Genocide Convention died nearly penniless in 1959. Only six people attended his funeral.

So how do we understand and rectify the disconnect that has become all too common: advocating for community-led change while living increasingly socially isolated and financially precarious lives? Due to the professionalization of social justice work that we have witnessed over the last two decades, social isolation is intertwined with doing this work.

Between advanced telecommunications and tax-codes that encourage non-profit incorporation, we have witnessed the professionalization of what had traditionally been unpaid activist work. What that means is that what had, for centuries, been voluntary community-driven engagement through religious institutions, unions, political parties, or diasporic/family connections has increasingly become an individual – and often entrepreneurial – endeavor.

Writing your own political blog and getting paid for it, opening your own social justice education consulting company, and/or becoming a professional grant writer are now common place. All of these are exciting endeavors, often involving travel, that may contribute to the making of a better world. All are also fundamentally one wo/man shops that require you to market yourself – i.e. your brand of progressive and creative deliverables to a client. One day you wake up and realize that your community – students, clients, companer@s – have become your customers.

With a PhD and two decades of grassroots work, I’ve been a social-justice focused consultant for over 15 years and am regularly hired to conduct trainings, write reports and do assessments for various development, anti-racist, and human rights projects. In addition, since 2004, I have designed and taught courses on social justice, social inequality, and social activism. I have come to see that hope is at the heart of my classes:  hope that things can change if we work together to change them. And yet, for nearly a year, I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. I believe my depression was a consequence of the social isolation I was experiencing even when on the surface, it appeared that I was actively engaged with the world. Most of my interactions with others were performative and scripted: teaching in a classroom, mentoring my students, or moderating a talk back after a film screening.

I felt like a well-spoken, charismatic, fraud who was constantly on stage.

True social change is not just criticizing systems and structures, but also re-imagining and remaking these systems and structures. And for some of us, we must now sell ourselves as the best (individual) person for pre-ordained outcomes that are often set by the same structures that are being challenged. It is a constant dance with the dangers of cooptation.

So, what are the unintended consequences of the professionalization of social justice work? What have we lost and what do we stand to lose? How is this individualized, piecemealed, scheduled and invoiced engagement harming us personally and collectively, and how can we change this?

To do social justice work well, I have found that I need to be learn from and be engaged with other’s ideas and perspectives – to be open. This is hard to do when I am feeling financially and socially precarious. I want to talk with others to share our thoughts, struggles, values and strategies; perhaps we can work together to create something bigger? But instability often leads to a feeling of fear and desperation, leading to a narrowing of goals. It tightens the scope of what seems possible. Precarity actually breeds more social isolation.

I am not advocating for some sort of “pure” altruism or activism. But too often I find myself teaching, writing, strategizing and invoicing about how we need to restructure society in a more communal manner and simultaneously realize how alone I feel. That’s when I especially feel like a fraud. For me, the current way in which I conduct my work is not sustainable: financially, emotionally nor politically.

The isolation I have personally felt – even as I continued to do my social justice work – sometimes meant that I didn’t feel like I was living up to my words or values. I found that my strongest skills: my fire, my desire and ability to look outside myself to act as a connector was waning.

I struggled to care.

I went to bed and woke up with these feelings as I continued to write about human rights, organize film screenings with directors from Cambodia to New York to Mexico, speak to hundreds of people about community driven social change, and teach, counsel and mentor students.

Arm of teacher speaking to classroom of adults
Image credit: dotshock/Shutterstock

I felt dishonest with myself, my students, my audiences. I was not only disconnected from myself but also from my values and the communities I was speaking about. Although I intellectually understood that there were systemic reasons for these feelings – the neoliberal turn in universities, the tax incentives of hiring non-regular employees, the project-funded approach to social justice work, the intertwining of healthcare with employment – in the end it felt very personal. I felt alone and ashamed and thus I pulled back even more.

I also had real financial concerns and stresses. I was living contract to contract, honorarium to honorarium, semester to semester. As someone who has worked since I was 15 years old, the instability was maddening. I had to constantly budget and hustle. I felt that I had to take care of everything myself – my students, community actions, emails, articles, reports. I had become the financial and social center of my own social justice universe. I was no longer being fed by passion but felt trapped and isolated. I no longer felt like I was part of a larger community working together to make social change but an isolated worker looking to secure financial stability from the same people and organizations that I hoped to work with.

What was missing in my life was the space to stop, take stock, and assess the work I was doing. I also needed to give myself permission to not have all the answers, to not get it right and to know that others who have similar values and life experiences would be there and have my back.

What seemed to exacerbate the situation was the fact that my emotions were completely contrary to what I was teaching, writing and counseling publicly.

This phenomena of social isolation is not limited to me or to social justice activists, academics and artists in North America. I have heard similar things from friends and colleagues in the Balkans, Colombia and Lebanon who are also experiencing a professionalization of social justice in their own contexts. I worry about what this means for the pursuit of social justice and what it means for all of us who aspire towards making a better, more human, and more just world.

Some might point to the increasing popularity of shared work spaces and hot desks as a trend that may help alleviate the problem, but I argue this is treating the symptom – it enables us to keep engaging in solitary behavior, together.

I don’t have the answers, I just know that when I do find the space to talk about my experiences, other people nod their head in agreement. What we are doing is not working for many of us. And as I tell my students, it is much easier to be against something than to envision and build something different.

From Robert Putman’s essay and book Bowling Alone to Kuhllar’s 2016 piece Social Isolation is Killing Us here has been much written – particularly in the field of sociology and psychology– about the physical consequences of social isolation. The percentage of people living alone has increased and with it has heart disease, diabetes and dementia, and quite often the conversation surrounds those near, or past, retirement age.

But social isolation is not a reality limited to those in the twilight years. Putnam’s book looks at people in their 40s; the research conducted by the Vancouver Foundation focuses on people from their 20s through their 70s. This is often an invisible phenomenon, one that comrades, colleagues and friends whisper about. With the professionalization of social justice work on the rise, I believe it is way more common place than we all may want to admit.

So I return to coffee, to the time and space to sit with others so that we may nurture a more genuine sense of belonging. Let’s destigmatize the shame of feeling alone and scared and recognize that it is not just my individual experience, or yours. And let’s reimagine how we can foster this sense of belonging as we do the work.

And so I invite all of us to stop whatever else we’re doing – to have a coffee.

3 Comments

  1. Kristina Zalite

    I’m nodding my head in agreement! Do I feel similarly? Yes, most of the time. My work as an artist, musician, and landscape designer means that I have to be connected to people, but the moment that I step away from the project-at-hand, I feel isolated.

    I’ve been considering lately that perhaps the isolation is due to having an increasing number of social encounters that are one-to-one instead of encounters with a group of people. My sense of connection is almost always with one other person, and I’m wondering how that is affecting my sense of community. Ie. do I have a community or do I have a series of individual experiences that are unconnected.

    I appreciate this article so much, as it gives me new context and a new framework to consider this alienation so that I can be a source for change. Thanks Shayna!

  2. Marcia Dinkins

    You have hit the nail on the head. We get hurt by the work, socially strangle our creativity all because we don’t stop. Thank you for this as this a reminder to create a space I can own and still work.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this!!! I have been thinking about my life as a organIzer and the way loneliness can creep in the background when it feels like politicians, administrations, and peers do not care about what we as a organization are working on.

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