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Opinion: What I’ve learned at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Small solutions are important, but we need to think bigger

I have found myself discouraged from time to time during the last decade. The truth is that it’s hard to care about everything that is going wrong in the world, and often, that is by design. After all, it has been said that pessimism is a tool of white oppression.

There are days I feel like giving up, weeks and months where I have stopped dreaming.

But, most days, I do dream. Because I know we can do better. And because I understand the stakes.

I became a mom six months before I started at CLS. And when I dream, I dream of other moms and what it would mean if everyone could raise their kids the way they want to, if everyone had, as I say to my son, “everything we need and some of what we want.”

Because I don’t just want people to survive, I want them to thrive.

My one true dream in this life is that every parent or caretaker will be able to give their kid a birthday cake. It’s oddly specific, but it’s so meaningful to me because of what it symbolizes. It’s about having a stable home and having the lights on, but it’s also the ability to provide joy. For me, the best part of being a mom is putting a smile on my son’s face.

As a society, I want us to decide that other people deserve joy, and that it’s worth fighting for. That we can recognize the humanity in other people, that other people are worth caring about, that we can get angry in a way that fuels our fire and sparks action.

I want us to decide that small solutions are not enough — that we can think big.

I often see things like toy drives for kids in foster care, canned good drives around Thanksgiving, and coat drives for people experiencing homelessness. There is nothing wrong with participating in these things — we need to help people facing urgent crises.

But what if we also put our energy, voices, and power behind dismantling the systems that put people in crisis in the first place?

What if we called our elected officials in support of increased SNAP benefits so people could have fresh food all year long? What if we demanded better access to rental assistance and benefits for people with disabilities so we could keep people housed? What if we marched in the streets to bring back the Child Tax Credit so parents wouldn’t lose their children to the foster care system in the first place? What if everyone asked “How is that Legal?” and then fought to change unjust, racist laws?

When we fight for big change, I believe we can move past the overwhelm. When we work to change entire systems, and when our work feels more like a drop in the bucket, we can use our anger and our dreams to keep going.

Ten years in, and my fight for justice is far from over.

I believe in the work we are doing at CLS to challenge systems of injustice and break down systems of oppression. If we work together, we can build a better Philadelphia, and by extension, a better world.

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Caitlin Nagel is the director of Advancement & Communications at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (@CLSphila). She can be reached at [email protected] and tweets from @Caitlin_C_Nagel.

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