When I was 17 years old, I moved to Great Falls, Virginia, a beautiful and wealthy suburban area of Washington DC. The year was 2004 and George W. Bush was to be reelected that November. Being so close to Washington was really inspiring. Before the election, my school held student-led debates on different issues, and students of each political party got to participate. I’d never seen that before to that extent: so many politically active minds amongst my peers! Not only that: I was an exchange student, on an exchange programme, with dozens of exchange students from all over the world. The organisation is called AFS and you should check them out and the amazing work that they do – https://afs.org.
My mind opened up to such an extent during that year, that I knew in my heart and soul that my life would never be the same again! And how could it stay the same? When you meet people from every corner of the world, your view of the world inevitably expands and your values change. When you immerse yourself in a different culture, you not only understand people’s differences better, but also their similarities. I have defended this ever since: every young person should get the opportunity to not only travel, but to be able to live in a different culture for at least 1 year before they’re 25 years old!
My desire and commitment to change the world and make it a better place became solidified after that exchange programme experience.
Was it difficult to leave everything I knew behind at 17 years old, go live with an American family I’d never met, and go to a school filled with teenagers I didn’t know? You’re damn right it was! Would I change it? Not at all! I truly believe I wouldn’t be me today, without that experience. In fact, I was so inspired by my time living near Washington DC, that I decided to enroll in a joint university degree of Theatre Studies and Politics. I still wasn’t sure at the time whether I would change the world via theatre or politics, so I decided to do both and hopefully know by the end of the 4 years. Because I was planning to go and work with the United Nations, I focused on Human Rights, Refugees, Humanitarianism, International Development, Nationalism, and Politics of Latin America (a post-colonialism interest of mine). I knew within a few months of studying Human Rights and International Development policies and dynamics, that this would not be the place for me to make a change.
My biggest take away from the practice of diplomacy was that everything was always considered above a human life. Culture, economics, religion, politics. Everything seemed to be more important than someone’s life. I felt that diplomacy often rested upon the idea of political correctness, which I saw as a way of never confronting oppressors. I mean, so much money is poured into certain impoverished areas of the world and everyone involved knows that money is never going to get to the people who really need it, so why is it going there in the first place? I couldn’t get past questions like these! When I learned about the bureaucracy within the various UN systems, I decided to stop pursuing this possibility. Not because it’s not good enough in general, but it wasn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t urgent enough. In fact, the more I learned about the dynamics between developed and developing countries with regards to debt and interest rates, the more disgusted I felt. I mean, “developed countries” continue to keep “developing countries” in their place through exorbitant debt and interest rate payments, which are usually attached to aid, but they were the ones who pillaged these countries of natural and human resources for centuries, in the name of religion and progress. Who actually owes whom in this dynamic? Whilst I love theatre, when it comes to real life and people’s livelihoods, these are not matters to be played with, and I couldn’t play what I saw as a game of diplomacy for personal/national interests to the detriment of others. Even then, my tolerance for systems taking advantage of people was almost non-existent. I’m not a game player when it comes to human dynamics and relationships, and I knew then that I would hate working in political environments.
However, I was also introduced to something else during that period of my education, and this actually came from Theatre Studies: the idea that “the personal is political”. An argument originating in second-wave feminism from the 1960s, this is the notion that personal experience is inherently and inevitably connected to larger social and political structures. The study of feminism, queer theory, and postmodernism gave me the language to describe the feelings of oppression and marginalisation I had always felt as a gay and queer individual, and witnessed as a close friend of many other marginalised groups of people, particularly people of colour. I’m not sure that people who have never experienced political, social, and cultural oppression are able to fully grasp the concept that “the personal is political”. In fact, the whole idea of privilege is attached to this: if you consider your personal life private and separate from political structures, you are privileged by default. Marginalised groups always experience their personal livelihoods as political. Oppression and marginalisation are not simply felt on a personal level between individual oppressor and oppressed. They are systemic. Societies, countries, and institutions are built, and depend upon them. And this was when I began to truly comprehend the notion that you can only change the world one person at a time. Because the personal always comes first.
I don’t claim to know when or how, but I suspect that at some point in human evolution, this idea that the personal is political was there, but it progressively became separated. Much like everything else. I see much of history as a story of division and separation. Current cries for empathy and love in today’s world are not resonating enough, because we have millennia upon millennia of divisive stories and histories to overcome. This idea that politics is somehow “over there”, away from us, that only certain people should discuss or be in politics, is ludicrous. Politics belongs to all of us. Politics is how societies are structured. Politics, in reality, tend to be a reflection of its populace. Not necessarily of who they are, but of how they are. I always go back to the basic human needs I have discussed many times on this blog: to be seen, to be heard, to be validated, to be loved, to know that we matter. This is who everyone is. But how everyone is, depends on how we act according to these needs, whether we have them met or not. And thus, going back to my previous point of changing the world, we cannot change our politics, unless we change ourselves. The world gets changed one person at a time. We all go through the same global events and circumstances, but we all react differently to them, and it’s in our personal reactions to the world around us that we need to start this work of transformation.
Human evolution has brought us to a place of deep divisions. I’m not sure where I read or heard this, but Charles Darwin didn’t just write about natural selection, but also natural cooperation. Nature isn’t thinking about “survival of the fittest”; it evolves at its own pace, in an intricate cycle of life-death-rebirth. Even human-created systems are cooperative at their core: religion, politics, culture, societies. But it’s always easier to focus on the negative, rather than the positive, and so all of these systems have, over time, chosen to focus on separation, division, and lack, rather than cooperation, integration, and abundance. And I feel that this is where much of the world is at, at this point in time. There’s a growing number of us who can clearly see a new way, and are prepared to cooperate, integrate, and share in the world’s abundance, and others who are simply not there, and perhaps never will. And just like we can’t save anyone from themselves, we can’t make anyone change their views, until they do. We cannot control the process and timing of this, and that is why it’s painful. But the acuteness at which politics is influencing everyone’s lives at the moment, seems to be a sign that there is indeed a change taking place. It is important to remember that “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new” (Socrates).
Politics is not just for a few, it’s for everyone. It is ultimately a system of cooperation, rather than division, and so, as long as there are groups of people with less rights, or without representation, there is work to be done. As long as the system accepts division and fear-mongering, there is work to be done. We are all connected, and ultimately a system that only works for a few, will ultimately collapse. As much as we repeat history in terms of conflicts, the collapse of corrupt empires and structures is another very common feature of our collective histories. Whenever this happens, a new world order is born. It is in our hands to lay the foundations of a fairer, more cooperative, more integrated, more inclusive, and more compassionate system.
For inspiration, and some comforting consciousness, on what may be happening in the world right now, watch this video:
Feel free to share, if this resonates. Thank you!
Ryan Campinho Valadas