March 12, 2015

Profiles in Social Justice: Meet Will

World Aids Day RibbonIn the first part of our Profiles in Social Justice series, we met Beatrice, a Catholic in her late 60s with a life-long commitment to social justice advocacy. In this part, we'll meet Will. He is in his early 40s, and he has quite a few things in common with Beatrice. He identifies himself as a feminist and a social justice activist. He's politically liberal, has a master's degree, and he too works as a mental health professional. Like Beatrice, he has devoted much of his life to advocating for the less fortunate.

In spite of these similarities, Will differs from Beatrice in some fairly significant ways. He is an atheist, is staunchly anti-theistic, and is openly gay. Unlike Beatrice, Will had a horrible childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse. In fact, he was kicked out of his parents' home when he came out as gay. He was homeless and lived on the streets at two points in his life. He credits these experiences with driving the particular form his social justice work has taken.

Will attended a conservative Christian college because a family member had gone there and this qualified him for more financial assistance than he could find elsewhere. Needless to say, this was probably not the best environment for an openly atheistic, anti-theistic, and gay man. Will experienced more than his fair share of bigotry. What helped him tremendously was that this college was located fairly close to a large city with a thriving gay community and was in a rather progressive region of the United States. Will was able to find an excellent support system off campus, giving him the strength to fight the injustice around him.

Immediately after graduating from college, Will moved to the city and took an entry level job in community mental health. He worked with a variety of low-income clients, but his focus was on homeless men with HIV/AIDS. Not only had he been homeless himself, but Will had lost friends due to AIDS and was determined to make a difference. His work rarely took place in an office setting, and Will found that his own experiences with homelessness and ability to navigate living on the streets allowed him access he might not otherwise have. He could earn the trust of men who had an understandably difficult time trusting anybody. Although Will loved his job and was great at it, he soon realized that there were many limits on how much he could do without a graduate degree.

This realization brought Will to a crossroads. On one hand, he was a brilliant guy who probably could have earned any degree he wanted and excelled at practically any job he took. The money he might find in some career paths was tempting. On the other hand, Will knew that he would never be happy unless he devoted himself to working directly with persons in need. He did not see himself fitting in at many traditional career paths with high income potential. He was too much of a free spirit, and his place was wherever the need was greatest.

Will could not afford to quit his job to attend graduate school full time, but he found a program that would allow him to spend a couple years taking night classes followed by a year of full-time study. It took him awhile to finish his degree, but he did so. Since this time, Will has worked in a large urban hospital. He has been able to continue his work with the homeless, and he has recently started doing volunteer work in the community.

Will is now able to support himself, but the middle class remains elusive. He has never experienced anything like Beatrice's financial comfort. Until quite recently, he lived paycheck-to-paycheck and often had to work extra hours or even a second job to make ends meet. He is more secure now in his hospital position, and this has allowed him the opportunity to engage in social justice volunteer work in his community. The most recent example of this involves Will's work advocating for marriage equality, an issue with some real personal significance now that he is in a committed relationship.

What I find most remarkable about Will is how his commitment to social justice advocacy has been a constant even though he's had to struggle to get by himself. I have heard some claim that social justice work is something upper-middle-class people do to alleviate the guilt of their privilege. I do not believe that is the case with Beatrice, and it certainly is not the case with Will. It would have been easier in some ways for him to be more selfish, to put himself ahead of others. But he hasn't done this. He's remained a tireless advocate and has made a real difference in the lives of others.

Continue on to the third post in this series.

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