After attending a succession of training, arriving at Cagayan de Oro City already became familiar to me. The moment I step out of the bus, I already know where to rest from an eight-hour travel before looking for a taxi ride.

At this point, I can attest how the sceneries never changed; the same overlapping buildings in the metropolis snatch one’s tired eyes while exerting efforts to fill in that internal void.

Maybe, advocates can relate when I talk about the “void”: a strange feeling of longing and losing. The longing for change to accrue is constant; how it’s envisioned for communities to develop as the people defy disinformation, inefficient leadership practices, ingrained debt of gratitude towards politicians, and closed-mindedness. And when truly immersed in the lives of community members, advocates slowly lose themselves — as if they’re part of a collective that will never disappoint them. But the reality of advocacy work is undeniably filled with limitless frustrations.

I can always recall those times when all things are already prepared for an activity in the community, but unexpectedly a text is received by one of the organizers stating that many of them (out-of-school youth) cannot participate due to personal and economic reasons despite the established agreement and their promised support.

Also, compromises are done when motivation of the community members is spoiled by the unsustainable offers of the barangay, rather than investing their time on social awareness through education and creation of sustainable solutions to combat what they believe as the “poverty trap”. As an advocate, learning from all frustrations require eminent strength oftentimes derived from the adverse social conditions that affect us personally.

Every day, we are challenged by rhetorical questions: who can sleep at night after listening to stories of a widow who just want to end her life due to poverty, or an internally displaced person who lost his mom due to their unlivable situation after the Marawi siege, while the President spits insults to divert the attention of the listeners to his language and charismatic leadership?

The only way to respond to the aforementioned questions is through committed action.

Just recently, the second wave of OURmindaNOW Tech Camp was attended by prospected leaders who exhibited exceptional skills and noble visions for Mindanao. During the five-day duration, I was able to extract significant stories from the participants who willingly shared their experiences of discrimination, social injustice, and even humiliation. Sadly, these circumstances happened just because of one’s religious beliefs and affiliation.

After the Marawi siege, reports were gathered regarding the explicit and literal “closing of doors” towards the residents of Marawi when they moved to neighboring cities such as Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. This unfortunate treatment isn’t an issue of protection, but rather a product of internalized stigma and wrong misconceptions.

At the Tech Camp, the hotel lobby has become our safe space — where we comfortably find our spot — positioning ourselves with sensitivity and openness to listen to each other’s plight without any stain of judgment.

One of the participants shared his first-hand experience during the Marawi siege. While his sister was enduring labor, the sounds of terror from gunshots and explosions blend with the scream of a mother whose son was welcomed with the consequences of human greed and extreme ideologies.

Aside from the insightful sharing of unfortunate life events, participants also shared their success stories in their communities. There are those who have championed the role of the youth, in inspiring those who have nearly lost on track, by pursuing arts and music as media for self-growth.

Among all the stories I’ve heard, one narrative never left my consciousness until now. It was disturbing and moving; something like a heartbreak that motivates you to engage with difficult questions of how to move on. A participant, now a great friend, shared his story of almost giving up on his advocacies. Before the Tech Camp, he’s already determined to focus on studies and personal needs.

His realizations in the middle of the Tech Camp forced him to make a crucial decision: to continue what he had started because the youth in Zamboanga City needed his leadership and vision.

Just like him, I can attest that the greatest heartbreak of an advocate strikes when he or she stopped believing in the community members who continuously suffer from various structural injustices; when he or she had lost patience in times of perpetual frustrations; when he or she started to devalue humane principles; when he or she had stopped hoping that the possibility of change to materialize is always possible.

For advocates, quitting is always an available choice. But we struggle to continue day by day to express gratitude to the people who are responsible for our growth and sustain the visions that made us resilient enough to flourish amidst barren lands.

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