As Audre Lorde had put it, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Armed with glitter and Crayola markers, I remember tacking posters to the walls of my elementary school to protest our school’s waste policy and demand better protection of the environment. My Achilles heel, as a classmate pointed out, was making the posters out of paper. I took note and quickly switched to used cardboard boxes, which all-the-more strengthened the message of the campaign. It was a messy process in learning, but an important lesson in humility at seven years old — listening and learning with an open heart. 

As I went through high school, I internalized our school’s instruction in “servant leadership,” which advocated putting your community before yourself, or in putting in a set number of community service hours to “make the world a better place.” To be a leader, they taught, you had to sacrifice your mental and physical health and people-please. I was too scared to call out our own school’s systemic failures in protecting the well-being of students, and promoting equity for those who simply didn’t have the time to be “leaders” in their account. I didn’t want to make a scene or center myself. 

When I came to Emory, I underwent a significant reckoning in self-love that made me realize I was in fact a valuable part of that same community my high school had taught me to serve. I learned through my own life experiences that sometimes we need to advocate for ourselves by asking questions, and then asking tougher questions to the people in our lives and the systems around us. Armed with a pen and notepad my freshman year at the Wheel, I remember fumbling through my first interviews with the Emory administration, eager to learn more about the initiatives they were planning to mitigate student debt and prevent hazing in Greek Life. But I found myself feeling like a scared high schooler once again.

I eventually reconnected with my childhood self and started to use those same skills in interrogation in every part of my life. I asked professors and campus organizations tough questions, to encourage them to look inward and listen to student critiques to ensure that they were doing the most good they could for the most people. Talking to people at Emory about how they could better support me, and support students like me, was just as legitimate of a way to make a difference. Indeed, the more and more I started to respect myself, the less disrespect I put up with in my day-to-day life I made friends and found mentors with whom I could be authentic. I don’t regret for a second speaking up for myself and for others, even when it was scary, because I know that others will benefit from it. It’s time to stop thinking of “the servant leader” as the only form of making change, and uphold radical self-love and listening as valid forms of advocacy.

Shreya Pabbaraju double majored in Political Science and English and Creative Writing, as a Robert W. Woodruff Dean’s Achievement Scholar and is this year’s Betty and Burt Shear Award winner and Levitas award winner. She was president of Pi Sigma Alpha, IDEAS Fellow, a Fox Center and Halle Institute Fellow, campus tour guide and WMRE radio host. She is the lead research assistant for the Emory Oppression-Resistance lab and was the former Managing Editor of the Emory Wheel, where she led the Editorial Board to the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Award in Editorial writing. Next year, she will be pursuing a MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford with the Charles E. Shephard Award.