For Change-Makers, The Work Is Personal

For Change-Makers, The Work Is Personal
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For social entrepreneurs, there is little emotional distance, no protective wall, between the world as it is and the world we seek to build with our human hearts. We can’t, and don’t, stand apart from the people whose lives matter to us.

Some years ago, while in Rome, after a multi-course lunch, I endeavored to stave off a ‘pasta coma’ by meandering opportunistically down an ancient winding cobblestone street. Heavy wooden doors and shuttered windows lined my path like sentinels. At one point, to escape the heat, I stepped into a local museum.

Inside a gallery of Renaissance sculptures, a poem on a wall caught my eye. It was called Touch is the Truth of the World at the Finger’s End. I was transported. Museum-goers fell silent. Street traffic faded from consciousness. Museum staff froze in situ. Alone amongst the statues, the poetic heart-beating of my social entrepreneurship pulsed through me:

You come alive at the touch of my finger’s end. All of a sudden, there you are, in your shape and your weight and your size. Perfectly given to me in all your yielding softness. Touch makes me love you…

For the activist and the social entrepreneur, for you and me—our lofty, principled and heartfelt commitments are grounded in a reality, a vibrancy, and an urgency that comes from seeing, smelling, and feeling the world. It’s like the difference between looking at a sculpture in an art book and the tactile, gritty thrill of touching it.

My capacity for sadness, outrage and blistering anger over an act of cruelty, neglect or injustice is possible because, in the instant of discovering it, I’m touched by it—sometimes like a punch to the gut. My capacity for empathy, compassion and respect is possible because people touch me with their life stories.

Social entrepreneurs, change agents and community activists are schooled in the real world; by the real world; for the real world. We usually learn about the broader tactics and strategies of social change work in school, on television, in books; we vicariously experience it online via blogs, photo essays, videos and news reports. As our knowledge and empathy deepen, we soon realize that we can’t win the world we want without directly engaging in that world. Without touching it.

Change agents train for their careers by working in communities for the same reason doctors put their hands inside cadavers, and human rights lawyers stand watch on death row.

“We need to have field experience, especially in economic justice work. We need to experience what economic injustice looks like,” says Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director of Thousand Currents.

Optimally, we start our social sector careers with an innate sense of humility—but humility also comes from listening to other people’s stories. I’m a slacker in comparison to a single mom in Ecuador working to feed her kids. A Kenyan shopkeeper’s cash flow challenge reminds me that my small business achievements are commonplace. My activism feels easy when compared to that of a public interest lawyer working to reform my country’s apartheid-like prison system.

Field experience mitigates the risk of glamorizing, romanticizing or objectifying the oppressed (or glorifying ourselves or our social entrepreneurship). Increased proximity to the real problems of real people decreases the chance I will spit-ball solutions. Once I have listened, laughed, cried, built friendships and made allies in a community different to my own, it’s nearly impossible for me to blithely impose arrogant, top-down, simplistic, shortcut answers.

When I’m out and about doing social action work, it’s my time for intense discovery. My connectedness to the world deepens, my compassion expands and my self-awareness is on steroids. As I sculpt and chisel my social justice career; when I’m outside my comfort zone; when I am learning within a community—that’s when I find myself falling ever deeper in love with my life purpose.

Our work is personal. Try as we might to abstract and conceptualize the fight for social, environmental, economic, racial and gender justice—for social entrepreneurs, the very notion of professional detachment (even if appealing on an intellectual or academic level) is viscerally anathema. Social entrepreneurship thrives on empathetic connection, trust and respect.

At a distance, it’s hard to hear the faint whisper of a person without agency.


Jonathan C. Lewis, author of The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur (from which this commentary is adapted), is a life-long social justice activist and social entrepreneur. He is the Founder of MCE Social Capital, an innovative social venture that leverages private capital to finance tiny business loans to deeply impoverished people, mostly women, in 33 countries in the developing world. He is also Founder and President of the Opportunity Collaboration, an annual strategic business retreat for 450 senior level anti-poverty leaders from around the globe. In addition, Jonathan is the co-founder of Copia Global, an Amazon-like consumer catalog serving the base of the economic pyramid in Kenya. Jonathan is a Trustee of the Swift Foundation and serves as a General Partner of Dev Equity, a social impact investment fund in Central America. #UnFinSocEnt @SocentClinic (Photos by Pixabay)

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