At Berkeley, during one of my many trainings for student affairs positions, we had a presenter come speak to us about values. I honestly can’t even remember the context–I think it might have been for RAs, but I can’t be sure. Anyhow, we performed an exercise that I now consistently execute with my volunteers in Ecuador. It goes like this: you are provided with a list of commonly-held values. You are asked to identify your top 8 values from the list, with the option of adding in any values you hold but do not see on the list. Then, you identify your top 5. From there, your top 2. The logic goes that each person is predominantly, though not entirely, guided through life by two core values. When I did this activity as a 20-year-old, my core values were openness and justice.
While I’m not sure that all my top 8 values would be the same if I did this activity again today, I can say with confidence that justice still ranks among the most important for me. Nothing quite sticks with me more than when I see something unjust. I can’t stop thinking about it. Here in Ecuador, I’ve witnessed more injustice than I could care to see for a lifetime, from the mundane to the truly terrible. Taxi drivers cheating passengers by refusing to turn on meters or tampering with their meters despite the illegality of the practice. Multiple violent robberies of individuals I know or work with and nothing comes of it. Abuse and neglect of animals, as seen by ravaged street dogs in the barrios. Sexual harassment and assault–the endless, endless battle–and no one is held accountable.
I want to talk about a few specific and recent incidents of injustice.
Scenario one: sexual harassment
We often house volunteers in hostels during conferences. Recently, an individual who worked at said hostel barged into a volunteer room, unannounced, and stared at this volunteer while the person was naked and changing after a shower. When the person made noise about it, the worker merely retreated and watched from a crack in the door. I reported this issue to a receptionist, describing the incident in detail and leaving my business card with the receptionist, as he was planning to speak with the owners shortly thereafter. I never received any follow up from the hostel owners.
Scenario two: exploitation
Our summer program culminates with an End of Service Travel and Reflection week. It’s a wonderful opportunity for volunteers to make meaning of their experiences while also appreciating the beauty of the country. Our final destination was Secret Garden Cotopaxi. We opted to do the horseback riding activity for our final day for a price of $35 per person. While pricey for Ecuador, knowing that horses are expensive animals to maintain, I thought it was a fair price. At the end of the day, I paid the owner of the horses, who saddled and bridled them, gave us a safety talk, guided us for the 3-3.5 hour ride, took care of the horses after we finished, and also drove us to and from the hostel. Upon paying, I asked out of curiosity how much he received from each person’s $35 versus how much the hostel received. He was hesitant and initially stated that this was business conducted internally, he eventually shared that he received $13. That’s 37% of the price charged when he is responsible for nearly all of the costs involved. I then asked what he charges independently, which is $25 per horse for the 3+ hour guided ride.
Scenario three: flat-out dishonesty
This event happened several months ago, but still sticks with me. One evening I realized I needed a couple of grocery items, but I didn’t want to go to the major grocery store because I knew I would end up buying way too many things. I went, instead, to the local tienda that has basic items. I had frequented the store about once or twice a week for months for similar small items. On this particular day, I went for cilantro and Sprite. The only bill I had was a $20, so I brought it. When I paid, the cashier–who had seen me at least weekly for several months–gave me change for a five. I contested it politely, and she denied that I had paid with a twenty. Slightly panicked, I asked her to count the register to confirm–this is what we did at McDonald’s if there was ever a payment dispute. She refused, and also noted there were no cameras in the store. When I asked to speak to her manager, she said she WAS the manager. There was nothing I could do except leave in angry tears, having been cheated of a full $15. For reference, that is the cost of 5 basic lunches here, or 5-8 taxi rides.
Seeing so much injustice, both in my life personally and in the lives of others around me, can sometimes have a numbing effect. It can feel like there is nothing that can be done and so it is fruitless to fight. I see this attitude in the way we often handle sexual harassment and assault cases with our host families: there is no point in saying anything because nothing will be done, so it is best to merely quietly remove the volunteer with vague comments about maintaining the volunteer’s bienestar. I also see it creeping into my reactions to theft. Whereas before my first thought would likely have been, “That’s terrible! How can he get away with that? Call the police!!“, now my first thought is often “Well, walking around at night/carrying around that debit card/being intoxicated in that environment was just asking for theft to happen“. When a person got robbed by four guys with guns in my very plaza after taking out 8k from the bank, my first thought was, What an idiot for not taking a police escort directly home.
Seeing so much injustice can also be contagious. I was explaining to Gonza that I feel that I have lost some of my integrity since moving here. For example, after that store cheated me out of $15, I stopped telling cashiers if they gave me more change than I should have been given–for months. And it happens quite often at small stores when cashiers don’t use calculators. Being constantly cheated by others has an effect, which can be seen most clearly in my interactions with taxi drivers. I have been treating them very harshly, up to almost yelling at them that I know you have to turn on your meter because it’s the law so turn it on or I’m getting out!! I feel myself growing into a colder, less honest version of myself living in this environment, and I don’t like it. Where has my sense of justice and fairness gone? How can I expect others to do what is right, if I am struggling to do so?
In June, Gonza and I decided to try out a plant-based diet. I had watched a couple of documentaries on the health benefits, and Gonza on the treatment of livestock, and we wanted to see how we would fare not eating animal products. As I learned more about plant-based diets, I became aware of the torture of animals we use for food. I learned about the deforestation of the Amazon, a place I love, as a result of the growing need for land for cattle grazing. I read about the detrimental environmental effects and pollution involved in the raising of animals for our consumption. As a result, I began to see eating plant-based foods as a form of fighting injustice. While it is not always easy, particularly when eating out and when I’m spending a few hours searching for new recipes, I feel like I am actively living out my value of justice, in some small way.
This little spark of feeling has begun to permeate into other areas of my life. After I started trying to eat primarily plant-based foods (some exceptions have been made during travels, and in moments of pizza-weakness), I felt reinvigorated. If I can fight the injustice towards animals and our planet by choosing to eat legumes, carbs, and vegetables, I should fight injustices in other ways, too. If I am to live my life more closely in line with the values I profess, I have to educate myself and do what I can to improve justice in my corner of the world. I realized that the first time someone gave me too much change after I switched to eating mostly plant-based (it was at a print shop), I kindly pointed out I was given one dollar too much, for which the employee was very grateful. I walked out feeling lighter, knowing that I had performed a small action to behave with integrity towards others and contribute to a more just world.
And then, I started into a spiral as I opened my eyes more and more injustices around me. My heart was aching for the neglected animals in the street. I started following a few families who foster and/or adopt children on Instagram, which led to research into what is entailed in becoming a foster family in California, and tears shed over the profiles of 17-year-olds still in foster care hoping to be adopted before they age out of the system. I developed a growing feeling of guilt over using plastic bags for my vegetables. Reading the comments in an El Comercio article about the Venezuelan migrant humanitarian crisis in Ecuador–we have received over 500,000 since the beginning of the year–resulted in more tears over the xenophobic vitriol expressed in 90% of the comments of Ecuadorians. Seeing Venezuelans begging for money to purchase food on my very street…
Above: comments on news articles about Venezuelan migration. Translation of the comments:
“What they should look for is cars to send them to the border with Peru why should we maintain these shameless scoundrels until the president first helps Ecuadorians, we have already helped some of these ungrateful people”
“We have to throw these people out to the garbage, apart from that they are demanding and arrogant and there are not enough beds for so many people, they should return to where they came from those Venezuelans”
The weight of the countless forms of injustice that surround us at all times can be oppressive. When you open your eyes to injustice, and particularly how your actions contribute to it or fight it, you cannot help but feel overwhelmed. It can feel like there is no point in trying, no hope in working to fight injustice, because of the enormity of the problems that plague us. And don’t even get me started on what is happening in the States with gun violence, migrant families, losing environmental protections, spending tax money on a Space Force instead of social services, among many, many other crises…
That is where I try to remember that each action, no matter how small, has an effect. The tree falls after one final hack with the saw. The whale dies after consuming a final piece of plastic. The homeless child survives a cold night because of one warm jacket. Remembering this is key to feeling empowered to take action.
I might not be able to care for all the abandoned and hungry dogs, but I can choose to never purchase a dog (despite wanting a sweet Golden when we have kids) and exclusively adopt from shelters. I might not be able to commit to only adopting children and not having any of my own, but I can commit to thoroughly researching how I can foster children, or serve foster children or orphans through volunteer work. I might not be able to eliminate my use of plastic, but I can choose to request no straws in my drinks. I might not be able to halt the economic exploitation of workers, but I can post on a Facebook page about the awesome service I received from the horse owner and share his phone number directly for others interested in riding. I might not be able to “save” a desperate Venezuelan, but I can give a dollar or two regularly to those in need, or donate non-perishable food items to organizations serving them. I might not be able to reverse climate change and save the Amazon, but I can wake up a little earlier so that I can walk to work instead of take a vehicle. Instead of asking, What good will this do? we can ask, Is donating these $5 I have to spare better than giving nothing? Instead of thinking, I can’t find a job that allows me to fight injustice, we can think How can I spend time outside of work hours to serve the causes that matter to me?
To state that life isn’t fair is not enough; complacence is the enemy of justice. We can all fight injustices, despite how monstrous they may be–be they social or environmental–by making positive, small choices each day. With these actions, I can remember why I was left with justice as my core value, and I can feel that I am actually living it.