It’s been two days since I returned home from the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy Conference in Denver and my head is still spinning. In addition to meeting some amazing people, I was pushed to evaluate what I stand for and how I will work effectively for social change.
Ben Jealous, the President and CEO of the NAACP and Gara LaMarche, CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies gave closing remarks that really summarized the heart of the conference. Jealous emphasized the importance of taking a stand and being open to unexpected allies, while LaMarche noted that leadership doesn’t arise when you hit a magical number—young people can and must lead right now where they are. The conference wasn’t just a space for sharing ideas and best practices; in many ways it was a call to action for both young people, nonprofits, and foundations.
We have to lead, right now: Here’s the thing: social problems won’t disappear when you hit 35. Nor will they be easier to solve. If anything, the pervasive inequality many people endure demands action now with everyone, regardless of age and background, harnessing their skills and experiences to make an impact. As LaMarche stated “Young people are already where they need to be, and older people are emerging in every stage of their lives.” We can create change wherever we are and our goal should be just that. Instead of asking “Which leadership position should I be aiming for?” Ask, “What change do I wish to see and how am I living my life to ensure this change comes?”
We have to be ready for an overhaul: An audience member commented that if social change is easy, then we aren’t doing right. Everyone wants a tool kit or a step-by-step guide to change the world. We see it all the time: 10 Ways to Save the Planet by Going Green! 5 Ways You Can Eradicate Hunger in America! On the one hand the “add-water-and-grow” approach to social change makes it seem more accessible to those who feel the problems are too big for them to even bother trying. But that’s just it—the problems are too big for us to pretend that all it takes it a light bulb change to curb global warming. We have to rethink our relationships with each other and the world around us and develop a new framework to guide our interactions. Then we must be willing to move our resources and time to addressing inequality.
We must challenge ourselves: Not just when it comes to addressing our cause but also when it comes to running our organizations. Social change is often presented as something you do to or for someone or something else. However, within our organizations lack of trust and inequality may run rampant. For example, the frequently asked question “How can we make our organization/board more diverse?” is often a symptom of larger problem of how we engage with diverse communities in the first place. Another concern often discussed is the mistreatment of employees and the lack of investment in them and the infrastructure of the organization, which translates to a weaker sector overall. As Barry Gaberman, former Senior VP of Ford Foundation pointed out: “Don’t let your projects be diminished by the myth of low overhead costs. You have to pay the fee.” We can only tackle those larger problems if we push ourselves and demand that we do better.
We must operate with love and a desire to learn in mind: When we talk about a need for things to be different, it can come off as dismissive. For example, social change brought about through protesting may have been effective before, but it isn’t as effective now. Does this mean that those who protested are no longer valuable to our cause? No. Does this mean we can’t build off of the successes and lessons learned through protests? No. If anything, the emphasis on change is both a reflection and a result of the legacy of the older social change efforts many of us enjoy today. Additionally, the definition of social change is not universal and in working towards it we must strike a balance between taking a firm stand and not excluding those who may not express themselves as we do. This approach of openness and understanding is crucial to building a better world.
The conference was a transformative experience and I am grateful to have been able to attend. I left feeling energized, inspired, and ready to lead. If you couldn’t attend the conference you can check out the video or follow the conversation on twitter. You can also visit Rosetta Thurman and Trista Harris for their insights and look through my previous posts on the conference listed below: