Awareness, action: East balances social issues, change for better society


Eddie Burgin

November and December have no shortage of awareness days, ranging from National Adoption Day to National Ninja Day. While some days are playful in nature, others take on social issues.

Thanksgiving is not the only event society expects Americans to take time for this month.

There is also National Pet Cancer Awareness Month, National Long-term Care Awareness Month, National Marrow Awareness Month, and Sweet Potato Awareness Month. Just to name a few.

According to studies, East teachers, and students, there is something to be said about balancing the weight of awareness with the need to take action for social issues.

Psychology teacher Ian O’Donoghue said, “I would think that there’s a net gain in having these awareness days [about social issues] because you’re honestly opening up somebody’s mind that didn’t get the information before. But if you have four awareness days in a week, or four in a month, then it just gets like white noise.”

 Exclusive awareness campaigns often fail, according to the 2017 article titled “Stop Raising Awareness Already” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

In the article, writers Ann Christiano and Annie Neim note how “to move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”

Key Club President Carolyn Winiecki said, “Awareness is the first step, but it needs to go further. If we want to see actual change, it cannot just be awareness. There needs to be people who are willing to make a change.”

Clubs at Plainfield East, from Black Student Association (BSA) and Key Club to Latin American Student Organization (LASO) and Muslim Student Association (MSA) work for awareness and action.

Plans for Friendsgiving supporting Black-owned businesses are in place for BSA.

BSA sponsor Pamela Sherrill said, “We try to bring awareness through different activities we have, communicating with people about our experiences – not only within the community at Plainfield East, but our experiences throughout the world – and taking what we actually see in the media and bringing it to us because it’s an impact for us.”

MSA is translating awareness into action through a winter items drive for the Islamic Center of North America Relief which helps “refugees, needy people, homeless. It’s not restricted to only Muslims; it’s for everybody,” MSA sponsor Naaz Fatima said.

LASO leader Saaylin Salgado said the main effort of the club’s fundraising is to provide a scholarship for a club member or Hispanic senior.

Salgado said small efforts can make change.

“A lot of people don’t really realize how big a small action can be.  A lot of the time, it’s as simple as continuing to speak up on the matter,” Salgado said.

According to Winiecki, Key Club focuses on environmental issues, including an initiative to plant tulips around school grounds that took place this fall, its traditional collection of recycling material in classrooms and supporting other causes from Feed My Starving Children to the Bags of Hope foundation.

Winiecki said, “Obviously education is important. To educate yourself on these issues, however, we really push students to go out and make change.”

Social justice burnout must also be considered.

In a 2015 study titled  “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications” in the Journal of Human Rights Practice, Cher Weixia Chen and Paul C. Gorski’s research suggests that “social justice and human rights (SJHR) activists, whose activist work is fraught with unique challenges, can be especially susceptible to [burnout].”

O’Donoghue said, “I would guess that it would be draining for people to constantly hear … about the plights of society. I would definitely guess that it’s a bit overwhelming.”

“It’s very overwhelming sometimes, mainly because, unfortunately, the amount of issues that are present are way bigger than the amount of solutions that are offered at the table,” Salgado said.

“Obviously take a break if you need it [and] it’s affecting you personally, because you have to take care of yourself. But the issues are normally always there. If you need a break, take a step back, but just don’t give up on it,” Winiecki said. 

Winiecki said, the most important necessity is “if you have an idea and you’re passionate about it, find people to surround yourself with who can help you make this happen. To create big change, it takes a group of people with similar ideas and similar passion. You don’t have to do it all yourself.”