For a parent, keeping the rest of the world in view can be a tall order—many parents might claim they have too much on their plate as it is. Yet, we have a responsibility to our community to help where we can, and teach our children to do the same. How can we find room in our lives and our hearts for this?
We spoke to Stephanie Chok, independent researcher and mother of two. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on temporary migrant workers in Singapore, and has volunteered with local migrant worker organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too. Read on for our conversation with her.
How do you go about finding a cause that resonates with you? Some of us who want to be more socially involved are not sure where to start.
SC: Just start! There must be something that creates an inner unease, that makes you think “That’s not right!” or moves you when you read about it. Try and list five right now—GO!
Stay connected to civil society groups in Singapore—like their Facebook page, join an activity, attend a talk, meet people from the organisation, and sign up for a volunteer orientation session. There is a wide range of groups, from animal welfare to organisations that advocate for sex workers’ rights, those concerned about heritage and conservation, gender equality, abolishing the death penalty and, of course, migrant workers’ rights—an area I am working in right now. There are also loose interest groups that form in response to a catalytic event, such as the government’s plans to build a highway through Bukit Brown cemetery.
A passive posture won’t get you immersed in activism. You can’t wait for a “perfect” organisation or the “right” cause—there are so many worthy causes and every civil society group operates differently, with their own organisational quirks and approach to advocacy work. There are organisations that focus on raising funds to support humanitarian work in the region, and those that have more ad-hoc activities but involve greater interaction with intended beneficiaries. Some organisations might focus on research and advocacy while others adopt a charity model, where they focus solely on service provision but shy away from advocacy. You need to seek out opportunities to find out more—“get your hands dirty” so to speak. Then align yourself with the like-minded, both in terms of the cause and the organisational culture of the group.
Observing what is happening in the US right now also reminds me that there are multiple ways to take a stand. More traditional ways would be joining in a march or protest—not always possible here in the same way—but there are also writers, filmmakers, actors, academics, and students who are making known their concerns through art, through social media, through whatever platform they have access to.
While raising awareness is an integral part of activism, activism doesn’t have to be dramatic and showy. As a parent, there are a variety of ways one can contribute to making the world a better place—putting in the effort to raise morally conscious and empathetic children goes some way in improving the world. When there are time and resource constraints, we can still support the work of others, and find ways to contribute with the capacities we already possess. For example, whether or not we are part of an organised group, if we feel strongly about an issue, we can write a letter to the press, lobby our Member of Parliament, or attend a town hall consultation to voice our concerns.
How do you shake the feeling that your efforts are too small to make a difference? For instance, many of us have participated in community volunteer work, but it’s not necessarily fulfilling work.
SC: I admit that it can be very discouraging sometimes, especially if you are involved in a cause where the cases you see—injured migrant workers, abandoned pets, the elderly destitute—just never seem to end. Every week, it seems like this: New person, same problem.
Either that or you can’t seem to pinpoint the causal effect of your contributions—there doesn’t appear to be any visible improvements in the situation or, even worse, the perceived inability to improve things leads to disillusionment.
Several points here: I think it’s important to regularly reflect on the nature of one’s intervention, to discern if something needs to change. Can things be done in a better way? Otherwise, if it’s just a matter of fire-fighting a broken system, then one needs to guard against burnout, because reforming a system takes a lot of time and collective effort. It requires political change, which is a gargantuan task and may take several generations. Consider the women’s movement—and still, a long way to go!
In such a situation, this quote by Nelson Henderson helps: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
It’s a delicate balance, but I think the trick is to feel sufficiently gratified to continue. After all, reciprocity is a key human need, and if we feel that something is utterly pointless, or that our efforts are consistently underappreciated, there would be little motivation to continue. Yet, we should not depend on personal gratification as a core reason to stay involved. The commitment has to come from a deeper place.
Another simple but effective adage: “Do what you can, whenever you can.” To which I would add: With thoughtfulness.
Your sons are six and one. Do you talk to your six-year-old about what’s going on in the world?
SC: My efforts are nascent. Right now my six-year-old seems to take things quite literally, and he sees the world in dichotomies such as good or evil. I’ve been taking note of booklists (like this) and hope to seek out some titles for him. When both my boys start reading the newspapers, I would actively discuss current affairs with them, because I would like them to develop critical thinking skills. I’m still considering how best to do this as they grow and go through the school system.
When they are older, I would also like to get them involved with the causes I’m passionate about. I will explain to them why I have certain views on particular subjects and will bring them along for events. I should add that this process will involve my own education—I need to read up a lot more, and from a variety of sources, as well as find age-appropriate means to explain complexities.
How do you find time to contribute to a cause, as a working mom?
SC: Busyness is a significant impediment—many working adults are exhausted by the end of the day, and stretched by multiple care responsibilities.
I am very fortunate right now to find myself involved in research and advocacy work that is activist-oriented. So it’s part of my paid work, which is a dream come true. I am also really lucky to have caregivers—both paid and unpaid—to share childcare responsibilities with, so that I can pursue such work.
Prior to this, it was pretty hard, and I cut back significantly on activism when I had my first child. (I was also studying at the time.) I looked to role models and tried to remind myself to be patient, that there are seasons in life to achieve different goals. Even now, with two young kids, time is constrained and their priorities tend to take precedence.That said, there are other avenues. We can support the work of social justice activists on the frontline—the ones who mobilise others, face off against public officials, challenge unjust laws and so on. We can donate to their efforts, attend their events when possible, tell others about their work, and take time to read and reflect on the causes they fight for. As parents—and now, more than ever—we need to counter prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that breeds from ignorance and unchallenged biases.
I used to idealise activism as something that had to be all-consuming and radically transformative, but I am also starting to view it as a perspective and way of life. Yes, there are moments when extraordinary heroism may be required, but everyday life offers many opportunities for interventions that can contribute to making the world a greener, kinder, fairer place.