“You should always strive to make a difference” and “create positive change, however small” are among the many things I was taught growing up. As I transitioned into academia and adulthood, it became harder and harder to see the world with the same optimism I once had. Quite simply, I often thought to myself that if so many organizations around the world are already doing so much great stuff, then why is the world still so broken?

We sat in at one of the group sessions with inmates from the Common Ground Project in the Correctional Training Facility of Salinas, and it was perhaps one of the most enlightening and emotional experiences I have ever had. We witnessed what I am sure was a very transformative series of moments for a whole group of men who had been forgotten by the rest of society, and most poignantly by their own families. When we broke off into smaller groups, the men shared some touching stories of how they felt they let their children down, how they wanted to break the vicious cycle of systemic violence that sucked their sons right into the same situation as them, how they felt like failures, how their own parents had never been around, how they had dealt with abuse and neglect and discrimination and poverty, how they were victims of circumstance. Then the leader of the group looked over at us and asked us if any one of us could relate to anything they were saying. Our collective privilege in that moment was laid completely bare, because we responded first with a short, uncomfortable laugh. But then we talked about how much our parents cared for us, sent us to school, loved us unconditionally. They asked us what we thought were the most important family values they should pass on to their children. Kindness. Compassion. Empathy. Forgiveness. Honesty. Love. Love. Love.

Love. It sounds a little silly to say “love can change the world” but it was during this session that I reflected so much on the idea of love and what it means to society. So much of my research has been about cultivating empathy for the “other” and learning to care about the world even when it does not directly affect us. Many, many organizations do embody that and work for sustainable change and development, but ultimately love is something so deep and so personal that every person has to harness it for themselves, first as self-love, and then to spread to others around them. We don’t teach kids how to “love” in schools. We don’t train adults how to “love” in the workforce. We don’t even tell parents to “love” their children because we just take it for granted that they will. We don’t tell children from minority communities that they should love their identities, their appearances, their backgrounds, themselves. We are failing as a system because we have dehumanized the system. We have forgotten that each and every one of us is the system.

The personal is political. I think we have forgotten how much of a difference each individual person can make. Our conversations with the inmates at CTF reminded me of it. Julie said the same thing. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they care. For someone to feel that they are loved. If conflict arises over the lack of our deepest needs being met, then feeling loved is right on top of that list. It might sound crazy, and I am fully aware that centuries of oppression cannot be overturned with “love” – but if we are serious about healing our wounds as a global community, then it’s a very doable start.