Sometimes I Get Angry: Contemplating the Role of Anger in Public Interest Work

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Sometimes, when working in a public interest organization, it can be difficult for me to remain calm. Sometimes I become angry and frustrated. I become angry and frustrated when I see people hurt needlessly. I become angry and frustrated when I see politicians and public figures disregard suffering. When I work with refugees and asylum seekers, I become angry and frustrated when I hear politicians and public figures speak poorly about people who have made the terrible decision to leave their homes.

As a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have often felt angry and frustrated. The President of the United States has been very clear in his lack of sympathy for Puerto Rico. Many news media outlets are no longer regularly reporting about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Government organizations, such as FEMA, have had lackluster responses to the hurricane: sometimes this is because the organization does not have the resources to help the island, but often it appears that a lot of organizations just don’t care that much. Learning how the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, making many mainland programs unavailable on the island, just adds to the anger and frustration I feel.

Being on the island with the #UBLawResponds team in January 2018, I find that anger isn’t enough of a reason to do the pro bono legal work I do. Anger and frustration is not enough to help anyone. It doesn’t help the people you are trying to advocate for. It doesn’t dismantle harmful policies and laws. It doesn’t change national discourse. It doesn’t change people’s minds. Anger, especially hot-blooded anger that spills over onto other people, usually does not serve a productive purpose.

One possible productive result of anger and frustration is that it sometimes serves as a fuel for yourself. Working in public interest is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and sometimes I’ve found that anger can serve as a short-term motivator when I feel like giving up to go work in corporate America. Anger can help me get that extra little bit of emotion to power through when I feel oppressed by the weight of all the work there is to do. However, if the only emotion powering you through public interest work is anger, then you will burn out faster than you would otherwise. So, I put aside my anger and focus again on the work at hand for #UBLawResponds and others continuing to serve those devastated by Hurricane Maria. You can support our continuing work here.