We are Not Islands – the Importance of Describing Life Context

If you aren’t careful in your writing, most American readers will read it through the lens of our individualistic culture, the over-simplified paradigm that individuals alone are responsible for what we make of our lives. This predominant paradigm doesn’t take into account the social systems that give some people fewer choices, resources, and opportunities, as well as more risks, barriers to success, stress, health issues, and trauma.

People from oppressed groups are far more likely to have grown up aware of the truth – that people’s lives are shaped by how other people and social systems treat them, by what choices this context and their natures give them in response, and only then by what choices they make. Still, chances are that your readers will have the individualistic view to some degree programmed into their thinking by our culture, even if they have been working to reprogram it in themselves, and especially if they have had access to privilege. It is therefore important for mission-based writing to explicitly describe the systems that shape people’s lives. In addition to helping organizations address the barriers caused by these systems, this makes a critical difference to readers in the following three ways:

1. It Helps Shift Culture to Address Systemic Injustice

One of the first steps for addressing systemic injustice is to get it out in the open and develop a culture where we all explicitly acknowledge and talk about it. That means making a regular practice of intentionally countering the dominant individualistic paradigm. The more of us do this, and the more often we do it, the more thoroughly we will reprogram our own thinking, help others reprogram theirs, and influence others to continue explicitly contextualizing people’s lives within systems of oppression or privilege. Helping to make this thinking common practice helps shift US culture to a more accurate view that factors in both what is in an individual’s control and what is not. This culture change is necessary for both addressing the harms of injustice and ultimately eliminating it, and we are all responsible for being part of this change.

2. It Helps Shift Culture to Stop Blaming People for the Impacts of their Oppression

Describing life context fosters compassion by enabling people to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and not judge them. For example, many people would judge a woman described as a high school dropout who has not been able to hold down a job, has three children by three different men who are not helping at all, and is struggling to get by on Welfare. But what if they knew that her mother struggled with addiction and due to racial bias, was sent to jail instead of rehab, and she was placed in foster care, where she was never left in the same place more than a few months before being moved again, so she developed a “tough girl” persona, and her life was peppered with racist microaggressions from foster parents, teachers, and social workers who didn’t think she’d amount to much? It’s no surprise then that she wasn’t motivated in school, and her need to be accepted, coupled with her lack of access to birth control, led to pregnancy by the age of 14. Stories like this are not uncommon, and once we unpack all the oppression so many people are up against, we can eradicate the trend of blaming them and instead admire their resilience, offer them support, and work to change the systems that are truly to blame for their situations.

3. It Portrays the Context and Impact of Your Work

Showing what the people you work with are up against makes the importance and difficulty of your work crystal clear, and it shows how deeply people can improve their lives by participating in your programming, or what a deep difference the systemic changes you strive for or achieve will make.

This draws donors and funders to support you and makes constituents feel more comfortable receiving your help, since they know you won’t blame them or look down on them in pity. It also helps donors and funders adjust their expectations. For instance, it could show them that if you are working with people struggling for survival amidst oppression, you cannot be expected to quickly solve all of their problems or mold them all into organizing leaders – but what you can do is invaluable.

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