Don’t Look Away

Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 4:34 pm
Volunteers help load cars with donated supplies outside Center Mall in Port Arthur, Texas on September 2, 2017. As floodwaters receded in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, nearby cities such as Beaumont which had lost its water supply — and Port Arthur struggled to recover. One week after Harvey slammed into southeast Texas as a Category Four hurricane, rescuers were still out searching for people still inside flooded homes.

Don’t Look Away

In a time of such political, economic, and social upheaval, it’s unsurprising that many of us are overwhelmed. We read the news, then retreat from it, unsure how to process the problems that abound or be part of potential solutions to those problems. It’s easy to feel fearful, cynical, even helpless. But one of the real dangers — in addition to nuclear war and weaponized white supremacy — is that we will retreat into our own little worlds, turn inward, immerse ourselves in the relative comfort of private issues.

Importantly, for the many Americans who are acutely vulnerable in this moment, this isn’t even an option. Dreamers are on the front lines — exposed and relentlessly, necessarily, pursuing their legal right to live in the country they call home. Black mothers must contend, every single day, with sending their children into a society that has proven itself brutal to black children over and over again. For these Americans, and many more, there is no retreat.

For those of us who have the luxury of dealing with the news of the day on a more abstracted level, there is a temptation to look away. In order to stay sane, we claim, we must do our part (the PTA bake sale or the church canned food drive or even the pro-immigrant rally), but then absolve ourselves of responsibility for everything and everyone. We might even call it self-care.

My biggest heroes are women who don’t look away.

Just out of college, Rosanne Haggerty found herself working in a shelter for runaway youth. As she watched the revolving door of young people come in and out, she asked her supervisor, “Why aren’t we finding these kids housing?”

His answer: “That’s not what we do.”

“But that’s what they need,” Rosanne thought. A MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient, she has spent her life ending homelessness, in part by getting disconnected social service agencies within cities to sit down together in real time and eradicate redundancies in their processes for getting people into permanent housing. It’s not the sexiest stuff in the world, but it’s incredibly effective; her organization’s 100,000 Homes Campaign trained communities across the country to find homes for 105,580 homeless Americans in just four years.

She gave a commencement address last spring in which she made a convincing argument for taking responsibility for that which may not seem like it falls within your mission statement — personally or organizationally:

“To take ownership of what happens here means to see things that are broken and urgently need fixing, to move toward the problem even if you don’t know what to do, to trust that you will discover what you need to do.”

Brenda Krause Eheart was an academic studying child development and the foster care system. When the crack epidemic in Chicago exploded, she noticed that the number of children in the Child Protective Services system tripled within a matter of years. Tired of just studying the suffering, she decided to take a radical step to end it, founding Generations of Hope, which would become Hope Meadows. It is an intergenerational community with a purpose: Families who have adopted children from foster care co-locate with senior citizens who commit to serving as surrogate grandmothers and grandfathers. Communities modeled on Brenda’s original vision have popped up throughout the country. People are hungry for this kind of village life, where some of the country’s most vulnerable can nurture one another, rather than being seen as a liability or burden. Brenda is interested in subverting the idea of vulnerability entirely.

These women, my personal heroes, refused to pass the buck on the problems they were witnessing. They took them personally. They committed to studying and serving, flailing and persevering.

Not looking away, by the way, is not to be confused with thinking you have the answer to other people’s problems. That, as I have written about extensively, is a sin worse than thinking you have no place being part of the solution.

Neither of these women is the kind who purports to save anyone. Instead, they are both fierce and humble. They know that ideas are a dime a dozen and that real, long-term change requires solving for local suffering and then getting really smart about how to shift whole systems through partnership. They do countercultural work without being obsessed with how countercultural it is. They conscientiously create the world they know is possible. They take personal responsibility for that vision. They will die trying.

That’s how I want to live. Even in, and especially in, these fearful, complex times.±

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    I agree with everything you have written here, Courtney.
    It is not fair for privileged people to wash their hands of the hard and messy work, leaving it all to people with far fewer resources who cannot afford to turn away or cannot bear to.
    Let me add that not feeling able to, say, found a non-profit is not a good excuse for not doing what one CAN do.

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  • Gabby

    There are many opportunities to volunteer in which the organization is flexible in how much time you offer! Even those that recruit retired people recognize that many older people need stretches of time away for family, health, and other purposes.
    Organizations that do real training or that have a client base that should not feel abandoned, like a child you might read to once a week who doesn’t need another adult to walk away, will typically stipulate that they are interested in someone who can make a commitment to come every week for six months- unless, of course, she is sick or has a compelling personal obligation.
    If you are interested in tutoring but cannot commit to a weekly obligation for the school term, you might consider a setting in which you volunteer at a drop in tutoring center rather than a situation in which you are an assigned person’s regular tutor.
    There may well be a food bank near you in which, once you are part of the crew, you get the calendar each month and fill your name in for available dates rather than making an every Tuesday commitment.
    Or, as you write, you can make a commitment to yourself to do each month a one shot volunteer stint. Many organizations need people for one time or recurring events like sorting and distributing back-to-school gear at the beginning of the year, helping with seasoning free dental events for the homeless, volunteering at a neighborhood shop-for-prom clothes event at a Goodwill or some similar organization, helping at a community math night for little kids, serving food at a monthly Open Mic at a day center for people in recover from mental illness and alcoholism…
    Not every organization has room for people unprepared to make a standing commitment, but so many do. I hope you find a good match. Your sould can grow each day rather than shrink if you make this move.

    • justthebest

      Great points. Thank you!

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