What Motivates Our Activism? My Activism?

What Motivates Our Activism? My Activism?
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California’s Interstate 80 is a rush-hour quagmire. Even on a no-accident good day, drivers dejectedly aspire to achieve the speed limit. Stuck in I-80 traffic on the way from San Francisco to my home in Davis, I couldn’t avoid reading the bumper strip in front of me. A cartoonish dog’s paw print outlined a life question for dog lovers and social entrepreneurs alike: Who rescued who?

Much like caring for a pet is a paradoxical version caring for yourself, caring about the world is also self-care. In the words of sages, saints and inspirational posters: “The more you give, the more you get.”

To one degree or another, our activism is motivated by three interlocking drivers. Admirably (yes, be proud), we empathize with the agonies and aspirations of others. Rightly (yes, hold our values tight), we are indignant about issues of inequity and inequality, and about environmental contamination. Selfishly (yes, we matter too), we are building a life to be proud of—a legacy of engaged compassion. We want a life that is worthy—a life worthy of our best selves.

Social entrepreneurship and a social conscience create defining moments of motivation, psychic inflection points that cause us to take ourselves seriously. When it dawns on us that our work, and indeed the remainder of our lives, impacts real people—a transcendent sense of responsibility sets in.

From that moment forward, hanging around in a namby-pamby job – wasting our talents and watering down our values – is living a lie, or worse. “Above all, don’t lie to yourself,” advised Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “The man who… listens to his own lie comes to the point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”

There is a tyranny of lost time, a kind self-incarceration that comes from working on things that don’t matter to us. A zillion small, insignificant minutes wasted which, when added together, amount to an emptiness of purpose.

Social entrepreneurship isn’t a corrective for past misdeeds, but it’s certainly a powerful prophylactic against future blunders. Social entrepreneurship protects us from the selfish and the un-meaningful. By doing things that I’m proud of, I’m rescuing myself long before I need rescuing.

A career in social entrepreneurship is formidable because in many other careers it’s simply harder and less common to ponder: What is our larger social purpose? For instance, I would guess that a doctor or police officer contemplates morality and ethics more frequently than your standard-issue corporate executive chasing quarterly sales targets. Wall Street bankers who practice savage capitalism are probably not hanging out at the water cooler talking about the environmental externalities caused by rapacious market practices. The executives who work for gun manufacturers, I assume, kick their dogs.

If any of us, accidentally or otherwise, finds that our pursuit of profit is damaging either our moral sensibility or ethical sanity, we always have the principled power is to raise our hand and quietly say: No. Halt. Not through me. Not now. Not on my watch. We have the power to leave a hollowed-out, ethically-empty, heart-deadening job.

Quitting a crap job is often the simplest, most liberating solution. But quitting a job is not for the faint-hearted or cowardly. On the contrary. It’s brave. It’s powerful. It’s a loud megaphone of courage. It’s confirming. It’s the ultimate accountability to the most important critic in your life: you.

And, while we are talking about savvy career moves, there is no dishonor in working at a ‘learning job’ to upgrade our skills while we wait for a productive social justice opportunity to materialize. The lawyer acquiring litigation experience in a big law firm is one step closer to working for EarthJustice. The MBA getting budgetary experience at a corporate giant could be the next CFO for the microfinance lender KIVA. The ad agency junior associate perfecting her graphic design skills might be getting ready to do communications work for Stanford Social Innovation Review magazine.

An everyday, add-on benefit of fighting injustice is building trust in ourselves, exercising our moral fiber, and strengthening our moral muscles for the next decision point. Often that means admitting a mistake, revisiting a bad career decision, giving up a nice paycheck or, in the secrecy of our thoughts, apologizing to our conscience.

Committing myself to social entrepreneurship is an act of self-legitimization, a statement about my better self. If I do serious things, then I am a serious person. If you and I tackle adult problems, then we are adults. We are rescued from the infantile and the sybaritic. We’re no longer playing with dolls and dinosaurs.

When I stop today and realize that, because of something I did yesterday, moms will be feeding their kids tomorrow, I’m rescued. Doing anything else – anything less – with my life is inconceivable, vacant and dishonest.


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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