I'm going to warn you upfront that this post might make you uncomfortable. You might feel embarrassed, or angry, or defensive. If you start feeling this way, stop reading for a second and know this: I don't think badly of you in any way, and I'm not suggesting that any of the things I'm going to talk about are bad. I'm only going to ask you to consider focusing your time and energy and money in perhaps a different way than you have done in the past.
Are we on the same page? OK.
Let's start with some premises. The time we have on this earth is finite. The amount of energy we have to focus on all of the things we want to (and have to) do is finite. And the amount of money we will ever have access to is finite -- at least, for the vast majority of us.
I would also suggest that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person to live and die having had zero impact on the world and the people in it, at least for some period of time. And that, given this fact, most of us would prefer to leave the world better rather than worse because they were in it.
Even though most of us want the world to be a better place, we have a problem, because we can't fight for every cause. There are literally hundreds of different causes we could support that claim to be moving the world in a positive direction, and we just don't have the time, energy, or money for all of them.
I see most people handle this dilemma somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes:
- People who are very passionate about one or two issues, and devote time, energy, and money in pursuit of those goals at the expense of everything else.
- People who are uninvolved in any causes at all, but if something's put in front of them and it's easy to participate, they'll occasionally do so, whether it's posting a Facebook link or putting $10 in the Salvation Army bucket.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: There are a few causes I'm passionate about (no surprise there), but Mike and I also set aside $50 every month to go to whatever cause gets our attention that month. It's a strategic setup because we know we can't put money toward every cause, but we want to make sure we're always doing something, so we've figured out what works with our monthly budget.
As I see it, there are two basic ways to further a cause: awareness and action.
For example, awareness is "let people know that this cancer exists" and action is "give money to fund research for prevention and treatment of this cancer" or "understand and share the specific steps for recognizing this cancer."
You can't get to action without awareness, because no one can fight for a cause they don't know exists. (OK, maybe indirectly. But stay with me here.)
On the other hand, and here's a key point I want to make, we have to make sure we don't get stuck in the "awareness" phase and believe we're doing real good.
(Here's the part where you might start getting uncomfortable. I'm sorry in advance.)
Two months ago, I got several Facebook messages telling me to participate in yet another "women-only" Facebook game, similar to previous ones in which women posted their bra color or where they stored their purse using vague statuses that confused their Facebook friends who weren't in on the "game." (In this case, it was something about saying you were going to another city based on what month you were born in.) If the message had said, "Hey, we're doing this to confuse our Facebook friends because it's funny" -- fine. Stupid, but fine.
What got me is that this, like the previous versions, was sold as being a way to raise "breast cancer awareness."
If this blog post is the very first time you have ever heard that people could get cancer in their breasts, please leave a comment below telling me this. I would be very surprised.
This particular campaign, to my knowledge, did absolutely nothing to actually reduce the amount of breast cancer in the world, or even to educate people about recognizing and getting treatment for breast cancer.
But, you say, it's not like it was doing any harm. It may be a waste of time, but there are lots of other ways to waste time as well.
Sure, all the people who messaged me about the Facebook campaign could have spent 15 minutes watching TV instead of updating their status and then copy/pasting the campaign information into a message and clicking on each of their female friends to send it to. The issue I have is that doing something like this can leave one with the feeling that "I did my part to fight breast cancer by raising awareness" when really... you didn't.
Here's my concern: If we have limited resources and we want to make the world a better place, then we need to try our best to focus those resources in ways that have the most impact. And it doesn't matter which side of the spectrum you're on, whether you've devoted your life to finding a cure for cancer or you simply will put a tiny bit of time, energy, or money toward the cause whenever it comes to your attention.
If you truly want to make a difference, then whatever amount of your limited resources you decide to put toward that cause should, to the best of your ability, advance that cause in some way.
Here's an example of where awareness can actually make a difference. Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy posted back in December about how they discovered their son had retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer. How many of you had heard of retinoblastoma before? That's the awareness piece. But Anne went a step further to show us the photograph that first tipped them off, and to encourage anyone who notices this same sign in their own photographs to visit their doctor. That, in my opinion, is a way, way better use of resources than a post simply saying, "Hey, this cancer exists!"
To answer the question titling this post: When is raising awareness valuable? When it leads to action.
In case you hadn't guessed, this post was sparked by the now-viral Kony 2012 video.
I posted this article on Facebook reminding people that as much as we love the story of a single, evil villain, and it's easy and comfortable to believe that "stopping" (killing, more than likely) Joseph Kony would make the world right again, the truth is rarely as simple as it seems. Mike responded that the point of the Kony 2012 campaign was not necessarily to kill Kony but to raise awareness about him, the key point being that Mike had not heard of Kony before and now he has.
What I say to that is if every single person in the world knew about Joseph Kony, but did nothing, it would not do a damn thing for the people of Uganda. (Or Congo.)
I want to be clear that I am not slamming on the Kony 2012 campaign per se. It is raising awareness, and as I said, that is the first step to action. And if you believe that putting your money toward the campaign or toward Invisible Children is the best way for you to make an impact, then I say more power to you. Truly. I simply want to challenge the notion that awareness is enough. I believe awareness needs to be coupled with a call to action, and that call to action needs to be more than "increase awareness some more."
I want to challenge you, before you forward a video or a link or write a post or contribute money to a cause, to ask yourself these two questions:
- How much time, energy, and/or money am I willing to spend on this cause?
- How can that amount of time, energy, and/or money generate the most action toward advancing this cause?
That's it. Two questions. You don't have to make every cause *your* cause, but I challenge you neither to do only what is easy because it's right in front of you.
Here are some more links to get you thinking:
- Boobs @ Blueberries For Me (on Breast Cancer Awareness Month)
- Taking Kony 2012 Down a Notch
- Invisible Children responds to criticism about "Stop Kony" campaign
- John and Hank Green's takes on Kony 2012
- Kony screening provokes anger in Uganda