“What happened to your iPad?” I asked my Liberian friend, Gwendolyn, as we stood in line waiting to get our World Economic Forum badges. Her iPad looked like it had gone to hell and back. As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off.
Gwendolyn runs a health NGO, which goes door-to-door in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, educating the public on what the Ebola virus is and how it is spread. Unfortunately, there are many Liberians who do not want to acknowledge the severity of the outbreak, and one such disgruntled resident smashed Gwendolyn’s iPad in defiance.
As Gwendolyn explained the horrors of an epidemic that was claiming the lives of so many of her loved ones, I couldn’t help but think about both the literal and metaphorical oceans that divided us. Her struggle was one for survival, while mine was far more existential, more privileged.
Just days before leaving for my Geneva field trip, I had been working on wrapping up a film with several of my Coney Island film students. I was exhausted; the streets reeked of uncollected garbage; and my brownstone Brooklyn apartment seemed like a world away. It was summer in New York, and I needed to remind myself of why I had chosen to live in the most humid city north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Amid my heated confusion, Nashon, one of my favorite students, offered to walk me to the subway. There had been a surge in gang violence recently, and he advised me that it was in my best interest to walk beside him. Ten minutes into our walk, a police car pulled up along side us.
“Is there anything wrong, ma’am?” the officer inquired.
Stunned, I replied, “No, but if he had a gun to my back, do you really think my answer would be any different?”
The officer tried to calm my nerves, arguing he was only “checking in” and that there was no need to become “emotional.”
Before I could proceed to read him the riot act, though, he drove away. It was in that moment that I finally turned to Nashon. He was silent, removed, and cold. Then he asked, “Miss Yaffa, why’d you have to make a scene? Your words ain’t gonna change the system.”
For Nashon, this was a common occurrence. He was stopped and frisked multiple times a week– sometimes even a day. He’d learned to keep quiet, be respectful, and not give the officers an excuse to harass him further. But I, on the other hand, was not used to daily violations of my privacy and individual liberties. And I, who had not yet been scared or broken by a terribly inequitable system, still believed in the power of my voice.
I told Nashon how impressed I was with his ability to control his rage; how I’d wanted to jump on top of the police car and scream bloody murder. And he said, “Don’t be proud. It isn’t just me; it’s all of us African Americans. Every day we don’t riot in the streets, you should be happy, because Lord knows we have reason to.”
Nashon, much like Gwendolyn, had reason to rage, and yet both of them contained their anger and channeled it into more productive channels. For Nashon, it was visual storytelling– taking his camera into his project and documenting his daily struggle. For Gwendolyn, it was picking up the pieces of her broken electronic and going to knock on the next door of an uneducated local.
Their behavior wasn’t defeatist. It was driven by a desire to change the system, incrementally. I wanted to change it, but without delay. From my more privileged prism, I saw the world through a lens of immediacy. I needed answers, and I needed them now. Quite simply, I wasn’t used to waiting.
And this impatience has become a recurring theme in my 20something life. I want it all sorted out… now. I want the Magic 8 ball to tell me my fate, and not say, “check back in a year, or five.” I want a world without racism or disease– not tomorrow, but today.
But perhaps I could learn a thing or two from Nashon and Gwendolyn. Perhaps I can learn to channel some of that passion, that emotion into a long-term project with tangible impact. Only time will tell, but in the interim I’m launching the second Hub of New York Global Shapers. Our goal will be to design a project to tackle inequality in the city. Rather than expect immediate results, we’ll be developing and implementing over the next 1-2 years.
I’m excited for this adventure, but a bit frustrated that I have to wait until the second week of September to launch this new project. I suppose this is good practice in the patience department.