My Lived Experience of Social Justice Work

My Lived Experience of Social Justice Work
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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.

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. You and I need opportunities to learn about the world. Equally, we need opportunities to develop and test our social entrepreneurial talents and ideas. Even more critically, we need opportunities to learn from communities and constituents; to grow our souls; to have our stereotypes crushed; to partake in what the Other have to teach us; to earn our self-respect as agents of change.

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.

Closeness to community catalyzes two essential qualities for the social entrepreneur: the angered impatience to take on the most egregious injustices, and the resolute patience to persevere in the face of setbacks. On the days when I’m most discouraged, real people with real names and real lives, with real hardships and real hopes, give me strength.

Optimally, we start our social sector careers with an innate sense of humility—but humility also comes from listening to other people’s stories. 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.

Social entrepreneurs carry two different ‘résumés of reality’. First: you and I grow up within a particular community and tribe. Possibly (because of skin color, economic hardship, gender, religion or other comparable outsider status), you have known the isolation and sting of being the Other. Your history, naturally and invaluably, will inform your social justice work. Or, maybe your life experience has been easier and more protected. Either way, we each have an inherited résumé.

The other résumé is earned in apprenticeship. We volunteer, train, intern and work to soften the jagged edges of life on behalf of the discarded and the left out—whether at home, abroad, or both. Without sharing in the world’s suffering, without feeling the sharp jabs of injustice, without witnessing the torching rage caused by inequality, without sensing the frustration of the impossible, our social entrepreneurship – like a fire waiting for a match – lacks the heat of conviction.

When it comes to your core identity as an agent of change, I can’t learn all that’s truly important about you by reading the paper epidermis of your life (aka your résumé).

Perhaps I can learn where you went to school, but I can’t learn about your moral fiber. I can’t know the extent or depth of your courage, compassion or character.

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. Experiential learning replaces someone else’s filter with our own. However robust our search engine, the realities of time and selection bias mean that the information sources we study, we study through the filter of someone else’s eyes. Powering up my social justice career means powering down my laptop.

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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