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What If You Can't Actually Make a Difference?

Would that change how you live in the everyday?

In a 2012 article for The New York Times, author and filmmaker Annie Leonard wrote a column titled “Individual Actions Just Don’t Add Up.” In it, she detailed the tension of those reusable grocery bags we often feel compelled to purchase—the big cloth or vinyl so conspicuously displayed at supermarkets. Somewhere in our minds, many of us feel we ought to be using these bags. Perhaps everyone ought to—what a world that would be.

Leonard did the math. “Sure, it reduces the waste from my household,” she says. “But even if we could get everyone to do the same, the impact would still be negligible, because household garbage is only 3 percent of the waste produced in the United States.”

Managing household waste is one small example, but it’s a microcosm of a much more daunting problem: How much change can one person actually make? It may seem minor when applied to things like reusable bags, but takes on new depth in issues such as poverty and one issue that’s recently resurfaced on the public radar: race relations.

Where Do We Begin?

Joe isn’t the man he was when I met him 10 years ago—selling drugs on a street corner, making a living by risking his life. But as he sits at our kitchen table, his head is down and his shoulders are slumped over his plate of leftovers. He has been depressed for a while now, because the systems in which he struggles to survive haven’t changed as much as he has.

“You coming to the meeting tonight?” I ask, knowing Joe has heard my wife and me talk for weeks about our church’s meeting to address racial profiling in our community.

“What meeting?” Joe says.

“You know, the one where we’re going to talk about how it’s hard for guys like you to change if neighbors are always calling 911 and the police are always trying to search you.”

Joe says no, he’s not going, then proceeds to tell me just how messed up the whole system is. How when it comes to racial profiling, employers are just as bad as the police. How Church people are some of the worst. “I’m worth more to the system in prison than I am out here,” Joe says. “They would rather send me back there than let me work here.”

“Don’t you think we need to do something about it?” I ask him.

“You can’t do anything about it,” Joe says. “It’s just the way it is.”

I tell Joe I know it’s hard for him to believe in change right now. “Hang on,” I say, “Some of the rest of us are going to believe for you.”