An Advocate’s Guide to Dealing with Setbacks

Losing A Battle Is Just Another Step On The Way To Winning The War.

I want to talk about setbacks. If you’re going to embark on a path of activism or advocating, you’re going to bump up against delays, stumbling blocks, defeats, and even some good ole devastation.

I know it can be heartbreaking, but these setbacks are part of the journey. Before the final victory, on any case I’ve ever worked on, we lose many rounds.

Look at the Erin Brockovich movie, which I know inspired many people. Like most movies, it has a neat and happy ending. The good guys win. 

In reality, most battles we are fighting don’t end in a timely way. And many times, there’s another battle ahead. The movie’s final scene was an arbitrary moment in time, before and after we saw more wins and losses.

When I watch the movie or talk about those events I now see it slightly differently than I did then and that difference is simply this: 

The most important part is the bigger picture, not whether we won or lost, but that we FOUGHT the battle at all! You can’t win if you don’t fight, and you can’t win if you are not willing to lose.

When I became part of the community in Hinkley fighting for clean water, I joined the largest and most important group of all. I became a citizen of the world in a crucial battle to save our planet from its worst enemy, which happens to be ourselves.

Hinkley was an important case but it wasn’t about one community, it was a microcosm and a symbol of both the best and the worst in all communities. The message was not about who was good and who was evil, but that in order for any of us to be good to ourselves, we have to be good to each other. We have to be willing to stand up for what we feel is right.

I didn’t save Hinkley, and Hinkley didn’t save me. What happened there and why the world remembers it is because it identified a moment of positive human commitment. A few of us were willing to say, “Wait a minute, something is wrong here and I want to be part of changing that.”

And that experience transformed my life. It gave me a platform to share with you.

I know we join these battles to make change, but we’ve gotta be prepared for the long haul, along with the many unexpected twists and turns.

I share all this with you because you may be experiencing a loss right now. Look at your battles and know that you have not seen your last one.

In the first part of my life, I struggled because I too easily let others define me. I didn’t fit in to the norms at school, and I felt like an outsider.

It has been said that we cannot choose our external circumstances but we can choose how we respond to them, and that draws for us the picture of what we can become. How you choose to react to what happens to you will define the tale of your life. 

I could have never become “superhero” Erin without struggle, pain, and lots of self-doubt. I still have many moments—all the time—when I feel overwhelmed and unsure. I don’t always know the next right move.

The choices we make can help shape the outcome. As Cassius said in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Fate may hand us a bowl of lemons, but it is up to us to make the lemonade.  

It is up to you to determine your destiny. Just as I did, you can help define your outcome by the power of your choice. You can drive your own bus. 

Don’t give up when you meet a setback. Get creative. Regroup. Reach out to others for support. Do what it takes to keep afloat.

Hinkley resident Roberta Walker is the original water warrior of her town. She had approached about 150 attorneys across the state, who were too afraid to take on PG&E before she found Ed Masry and me. She’s even more fiery than me, which always makes me smile. Throughout that case, we knew we fighting a giant and that we may not win, until we found a way. It took time and dedication to the cause. You can find a way too. That’s what all this work is really about.

I felt inspired today by a story in the New York Times about the young students of the Scandinavian Cello School. These classical musicians have performed outdoor concerts for the local cows (and people) during the pandemic. Talk about getting creative, doing what you love, and making friends with your neighbors.

Read the whole story here.

Jacob Shaw, the school’s founder, had toured internationally as a solo cellist. After learning that the school’s neighbors, who raise cows, were classical music fans, Shaw and his students began performing weekly at the farm. The animals appeared to love it, rushing toward the musicians when they arrived.

“It’s actually nice playing for cows,” one student said. “We saw it in rehearsal—they really do come over to you. And they have preferences. Did you see how they all left at one point? They’re not really Dvorak fans.”

Don’t be afraid to get creative in your fight and make unexpected friends. You never know where it might lead and how it can help you get through a tough time.