Author Karen Walrond In Conversation With Tarana Burke About Balancing Joy With Activism

Author Karen Walrond

The following excerpt is from Karen Walrond’s ‘The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy’, out November 2, 2021 from Broadleaf Books.
In ‘The Lightmaker’s Manifesto’, Walrond helps us name the skills, values, and actions that bring us joy; identify the causes that spark our empathy and concern; and then put it all together to change the world. Creative and practical exercises, including journaling, daily intention-setting, and mindful self-compassion, are complemented by lively conversations with activists and thought leaders such as Valarie Kaur, Brené Brown, Tarana Burke, and Zuri Adele. With stories from around the world and wisdom from those leading movements for change, Walrond beckons readers toward lives of integrity, advocacy, conviction, and joy. By unearthing our passions and gifts, we learn how to joyfully advocate for justice, peace, and liberation. We learn how to become makers of light.


This is the advice of my friend Tarana Burke. Tarana is the brilliant activist who began the Me Too movement, a revolution of support, resources, and healing for survivors of sexual violence. Tarana’s amazing advocacy has garnered numerous accolades, including being named the 2017 Time magazine Person of the Year and receiving the 2018 Courage Prize from the Ridenhour Prizes, awarded to individuals who “demonstrate courageous defense of the public interest and passionate commitment to social justice.”

Tarana was a tireless activist for decades prior to 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano popularized the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter in response to the sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Milano’s innocent tweet brought Tarana’s work to national attention. Tarana has been an activist since 1989, working in defense and service of sexual abuse survivors. Tarana and I have known each other for several years, and she is a person of both fierce determination and joy. So naturally she was one of the first people I asked for advice on how to get started in activism. 

Her immediate answer reinforced the importance of a continuous learner’s mindset. “I advise young people—or really anyone wanting to be more involved in reshaping the world—to do a few things first. The first is to get clear about who they are,” she explained. “For instance, when I first started out, I got really clear that I was a ‘worker,’ and my role was to roll up my sleeves and help advance the work I believed in with my skills behind the scenes. That clarity helped me not feel jealous for not being able to contribute in the ways other people had deemed valuable.” 

“This process of getting clear and doing self-assessment can take time,” she continued. “Folks often feel pressured to know and understand their role immediately and do tangible or visible things right away. For this reason, the other, equally important thing I advise is to get out in the world and develop a better understanding of the issue you care about. Volunteer, attend meetings, join groups, and allow yourself to be open to deepening your education.” Tarana’s mindful approach also allows her to learn what she needs to know so that she can engage in her activism thoughtfully, minimizing the chances of her inadvertently causing harm to the communities for which she advocates. 

Mira Jacob, the author of ‘Good Talk’ and an antiracism and LGBTQ+ activist, concurs. Going slowly into activism and having a beginner’s mind are crucial. Mira is also adamant about the huge benefit that curiosity brings to beginning a path to activism. 

“I think of curiosity as the immigrant’s superpower,” Mira grinned. “The cool thing about my parents—and I mean deeply cool—is that as immigrants, they were always trying to figure out America. When they came here in their twenties, they knew almost nothing about the country. They ran into people who wanted to know all about them and people who wanted them to leave, and they made a lot of mistakes on their way to figuring out how to live here.” 

Even years later, Mira said, after their lives were fully established in New Mexico, they never stopped trying to figure out America. And they did it with enthusiasm. And bewilderment, and excitement, and always in the spirit of curiosity. “Because of them, curiosity is at the core of all of the work I do,” Mira told me. “Curiosity, I think, is the antidote to so much of the fear and hatred we see around us.” 

So there you have it: be clear on your scope of control and influence, approach your issue with a beginner’s mind, and maintain a sense of curiosity. This is all great advice for how to take those very first steps on your activism journey. But I’d like to add one more thing: When it comes to that very first baby step, dare yourself. 

I’m not generally a daring person. You’ll never see me tie a bungee cord around my ankle and take a flying leap off of a perfectly good bridge. Airplanes are things that I try assiduously to remain inside of while flying, as opposed to leaping out of them with a parachute strapped to my back. If life or limb is on the line, I’m going to walk away. Yet I admit that some of the biggest things I’ve experienced occurred because I dared myself. I just sort of quietly said, “Huh. Let’s see if I can.” 

As a young engineer, only about one year out of university, I could already see that engineering was not a career I wanted to pursue long-term. I was working for an engineering construction company, and day in and day out I spent hours calculating what steel beams and girders and columns would make the best pipe racks. When I looked over the cubicle wall at the engineer sitting next to me—the guy with twenty years more experience than I had—I saw that he was doing the same thing, just with bigger, more complicated pipe racks. 

So I began toying with the idea of going back to university for a graduate degree. At the time, the only reasonable options I thought I had was to pursue an MBA or a law degree. Many engineers I knew were getting their MBAs. So just to be different, I decided to consider law. 

In all honesty, going to law school seemed like a pipe dream. My undergraduate grades were average, and I assumed that only the very best and brightest would get into law school. That group certainly didn’t include me. Why even try? I thought to myself. But my inner daredevil answered: I dare you to look into it. 

So I did. In addition to my undergraduate transcripts, application to law school would require that I take the LSAT. One day after work I stopped at a bookstore to thumb through a LSAT preparation book, to see what types of questions the entrance exam would contain. I wanted to see what it would be like in case I actually broke down and decided to try. 

This doesn’t look impossible, I thought, surprised, as I flipped the pages. 

I dare you to take it, my daredevil responded. No one has to see how you do. And you don’t actually have to apply to law school. You’ve got nothing to lose. Take it and see what happens. 

So I bought the prep book, took it home, studied, and applied to take the LSAT the next time it was offered. When I received my scores, I was shocked: I had done well. Really well. 

Maybe I should apply to law school! I thought. 

And again, my daredevil piped up. I dare you to. What’s the worst that can happen? You won’t get in? So what? You have a job; you don’t actually need a law degree. I dare you to try. 

And so I did. I applied to two major law schools in Houston and received acceptance letters from both. And so . . . I had to go. After all, how could I turn back now? 

What seemed to me as an insurmountable dream of becoming a lawyer happened because I dared myself to take baby steps along the way. Other major events have happened in my life because of baby steps. I became a scuba diver because I dared myself to check out a class. I took that photo assignment to Kenya because I dared myself to say yes to the invitation from the ONE Campaign. Heck, I even became a mother because I dared myself to contact an adoption agency just to see what the process was all about. 

So as you go into the world of advocacy, dare yourself. Dare yourself to learn more about the issues. Dare yourself to examine what’s in your control and who you can influence. Dare yourself to take that first step. The best thing that will happen is that you’ll actually change the world. 


Karen Walrond is a lawyer, leadership coach, and activist. A Certified Dare To Lead™ Facilitator in Brené Brown’s research on courage, vulnerability and empathy, Walrond has helped thousands of people around the world find purpose and meaning in their work. As a photographer, she traveled throughout Africa with the ONE Campaign and serves on the board for the Houston Coalition Against Hate. Walrond and her work have been featured on PBS, Huffington Post, CNN.com, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her award-winning blog, Chookooloonks, is a lifestyle, inspiration, and photography destination. A sought-after speaker, Karen is the host of the highly rated podcast “The Make Light Show”, the author of ‘The Beauty of Different’ and ‘The Lightmaker’s Manifesto’, and a contributor to Disquiet Time and Expressive Photography. 
Karen, her husband, and their daughter live in Houston, Texas.

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