When is fear your friend?
Our emotions have a lot of good information for us, but it’s sometimes hard to untangle what that message is. I’ve noticed two kinds of fear — I turn away from one, but towards the other.
The first kind of fear is a fear of not doing enough, not doing it right, it’s connected to shame. Especially when I was younger, this fear led me to work like a martyr – no amount of hours were enough. This fear made me ashamed to follow up with community leaders who I admired because I (wrongly) assumed they expected me to be in touch with them more often, or expected me to do more. My assumption that a community leader or funder expected me to reach out to them more quickly led me to feel ashamed and afraid about picking up the phone or stopping by, or made me nervous when I finally did. When I sucked it up and did call the people I thought would be mad that I hadn’t spoken to them, guess what, they were fine. As I grew more mature, I realized that this fear might drive me to manically work more and harder in some ways, but it stops me from taking important actions, and really isn’t serving me, or anyone. This fear assumes that whatever I’m doing is too small, and that I’m failing. The result is paralysis and inaction. I’ve worked to leave this fear behind.
The other kind of fear, assumes that what I’m doing is too big. I felt it most viscerally at the start of a campaign for affordable housing that our team led in New Jersey. We put out flyers saying “Need Section 8?” and when people responded — in the thousands — we explained that we didn’t offer Section 8 rental assistance, but that we were fighting a campaign together, and that if the thousands of people who were responding got organized, together, we could get more. I remember looking in one woman’s eyes as she pulled out her checkbook and paid her dues to be a member of the organization and the campaign. I saw what kind of sacrifice this low income woman was making and I was terrified. I was asking myself, would this work? Could we really win? Was I being fair in taking this woman’s money? Should I just push her check back across the table and say ‘Don’t do this.”
A kind of calm came over me as we looked at each other. I knew I couldn’t push her checkbook back to her. That would say “Nevermind, there’s no hope.” I couldn’t be one more person slamming the door in her face. My job was to be an open door for her, and the thousands of other people who responded, and to channel their power to the places where decisions about budgets and housing would be made. I had a kind of faith in both of us. A faith that she, with a thousand other families, could build power and win. And a faith in myself, that as long as she and others kept participating, I would do what I knew best and figure out the levers that would keep their powerful wave rolling into the halls of power and through the doors to the rooms where decisions were made. We both had to open that first door together and step through it, not knowing for sure what was on the other side, but with faith that together we could bend the arc of history that Martin Luther King Jr spoke about.
This fear did not freeze me, it motivated me. I felt both a huge responsibility to this newest member and the thousands of people who showed up, but also a sense of calm. The fear told me that what I was doing mattered. When your job description is remaking the world in the service of the disempowered, a campaign that feels safe means you’re not actually changing anything. Literally, if I had backed away from the thousands of people who were demanding affordable rents and instead did something safe, that I felt sure we could win, I would not be changing anything significant. Only when we picked something audacious, that we weren’t sure could be possible, did I know that we were actually playing in the space of creating change.
We won this campaign, creating a new $40 million state rental assistance fund. As importantly, we built the power of our low income, largely African American and Latino membership to be at the table with power players in the state. The campaign meant partnering with progressive unions and organizations to raise taxes on the rich, and the thousand of members who turned out at statewide events, and hundreds of letters our canvass generated in suburban swing districts made a big difference. This helped us all win the millionaire tax, and ensured that as the legislature was trying to figure out how to spend the revenue, rental assistance was a priority.
I’ve learned to lean into this kind of fear. It shows that I’m going the right direction, that I’m doing something that matters, that I’m creating genuine change. It means having a kind of faith in myself, my partners, our motivations, and our chances for success. It means pushing myself and others to get what is needed to win. Nervous about reaching out to a legislator? When I think about the look in that woman’s eyes, I know I have to keep those doors opening up. I call. Worried that I don’t understand housing policy enough? We don’t have the staff we need? Whatever comes up, I’m driven to find solutions.
What kind of fear have you noticed in your career or life? I’d love to hear about it below. When you think about the sentence: “I’d love to _______, but I’m afraid…” What is in that open space? What do you have to do to open that door and keep it open?