Social Determinants of Dreams

The minute I started following writers and publishers on Twitter, I was overwhelmed by Tweet after Tweet of images expressing the line “if you dream it you can achieve it” and other similar concepts.

The “social determinants of health” are the external factors that may shape the health of both individuals and groups. The determinants include things like education, race, social status, working conditions etc. Basically, this term moves beyond individual genes to acknowledge the social factor that may shape health. For instance, does one work long hours at a factory, and get underpaid and eat poorly because of this and have no time to exercise because of work schedules?  Or maybe a particular demographic of people live near a toxic waste dump and because of economics have little opportunity to move and are experiencing environmental racism.  Stay with me here.

I suggest that that we need to think through a similar lens when we see the overwhelming flow of inspirational quotes online. The social determinants of dreams acknowledges that external factors shape the likelihood and probability of dreams coming true. Yes, at the end of the day there is still “work” and “skill” that needs to be put in in order for dreams to be achieved , but due to varying degrees of social privilege, different people have more resources for this dream attainment so to speak. Some people need to put way more work in to be in a space where they can show off their skills.

Let’s think about writing for a minute. Again social media pages for authors are filled with narratives about just starting, opening the page, believing in your dreams, making your voice heard, better today than tomorrow etc. Thinking about writing is the perfect time to think about whose voices get heard in society & how. I’ve recently gotten a bit of exposure for my book. As a person with a mental health history writing fiction about mental health, a reoccurring conversation is about the need for more diversity in authors and in fiction. Yet—the social determinants of dreams shapes who is able to write—and then whose work gets published & how. Not to mention down the road whose books (and voices) make it into Canadian high school and university classrooms (anyone want to read a book by a white, cis-male author?)

   Conditions that may help folks write & get published:

  • Some type of education for basic literacy skills – or you know you can get a grad degree in creative writing ($ & geographic/ social location)
  • An education that was accessible to you regardless of your abilities (Was school a breeze? OR Did you get the chance to gain skills that help you write/ concentrate etc. if you have a related disability?)
  • Access to technology / internet ($ & geographic/ social location)
  • time to write, time to edit, time to apply to publisher after publisher, time for self-marketing, I’ve spent so much time I don’t have on social media lately for my book and other important things have slipped because of this ($$, physical health, no full time care giver responsibilities etc.)
  • Confidence in ideas (which may be shaped by privilege, have you been told you have amazing ideas all your life? Is your identity reflected in popular culture and other books?)
  • Social location (ok you wrote a book—now what do you do with the manuscript? What do your social networks look like, what does your resume look like, how marketable are you? What friends do you have who can help you get reviews & media attention?)
  • Not experiencing “isms”/ other discrimination (racism, agemism classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia etc.)
  • Money money money —you want to get your ideas out right? Pay for a self-publishing package if you aren’t having luck with traditional publishing  (editor, cover design, marketing etc.) or go the traditional route—did you know that the books with the covers out in the bookstore windows are the books with the $$ behind them? This is no longer just about literary merit.

*This list isn’t inclusive & I truly believe everyone has valid ideas & can write, but I want to acknowledge these layers of privilege and access to literary spaces* I’ll likely  return to this post in a few weeks  with more ideas

I don’t like to think about privilege as a line, but rather a dance. As a new author, I acknowledge my privilege: family & friends who believed in me(some degree of a social network from this), education (BA, MA), white privilege. Disadvantage: wrote the book as a struggling person with disabilities because I had time when underemployed, 0 job stability (aka writing this in the very early morning hours before 1/3 jobs), chronic pain and other disabilities that are worsened by lack of job stability (and lack of access to healthcare), education system that is ableist as fuck (from elementary school )to grad school etc.

This post is just to remind everyone that there are social contexts for dreams, whether one desires to be a teacher, writer, or NBA player and social contexts are worth acknowledging. If you struggle to find time to write—or whatever it is you are passionate about, remember that we truly aren’t all on the same playing field in the first place.

I’ll leave you with this cartoon which perfectly deconstructs the narrative of the self-made person & breaks down the idea that we are all given the same opportunities. I’m off for now, I’d love to keep writing, but I have work to do so I can have money, and maybe time to keep writing if I’m not too busy on social media trying to promote myself.




2 thoughts on “Social Determinants of Dreams

  1. This is a thoughtful and powerful post, Emily. I completely agree with your statements, and your argument applies to so much more than just writing. We live in a world with a huge diversity in opportunity. For some people, a decision to follow their dreams is a matter of a simple choice. For others, it’s a struggle and, in many cases, impossible (when mere survival is at stake). A significant challenge with social media is that the audience is so broad. Our words will apply to some, not to others. I think positivity is good, but also empathy and compassion and the recognition that privilege, or the lack of, is a factor in the lives of many. ❤


    1. Thanks for the comment Wallace. I agree, with a very broad audience sometimes it’s good to stay general and then being positive and encouraging makes sense. However, some social media spaces (like facebook) where there is more room for writing (not limited my character count) people perhaps start these larger conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

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