My advice: let it go

Mar 22, 2011 by

Akhila Kolisetty, one of my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers, recently posted about her pangs of disillusionment with NGOs, the social sector and in her own ability to change the world. The post really spoke to me, because that’s exactly where I was about 8 years ago as a very young professional feminist out to change the world.

Flickr photo courtesy of her wings

I too felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall and getting nowhere in creating systemic change or even small-scale change. I could feel the weight of all the world’s oppression settling onto my shoulders. It was…unhealthy to say the least.

So I offer this small piece of advice in getting beyond the disillusionment from someone who has found a healthy balance of passion and calm: let it go. Let go of the idea that you can change the entire world on your own or that you even should. Let go of the guilt and frustration that inevitably occurs when you don’t succeed.

Instead, embrace your ability to change the small, but ultimately most important things: people’s lives. Akhila notes “Sure, I may be helping individuals access justice, but somehow it’s not enough, it’s never enough.” I challenge that notion completely; who is it not enough for? You? How about for that individual that you helped? You may have altered his or her life permanently for the better or you may have just made today easier; either way, you’ve made an impact.

Almost everyone can remember a time when someone else reached out during a bleak time in their lives to offer love, support or comfort. That small gesture likely made a big impact and gave you the strength to keep going. By working in the nonprofit sector, by thinking about social justice as a right and not a privilege, and by getting up and going to work everyday, you are making an impact. Don’t forget it.

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  • I love this reminder. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks for the advice. Perhaps I’m crazy but I seek big, huge change. It’s hard for me to be satisfied with the status quo and I believe that for things to improve, we have to fundamentally change structures and systems. Non-profits will be doing this work & assisting individuals regardless of whether I am here or not. In fact if I was not here, some other young person would be doing the same exact thing, in this job. It’s replicable. So therefore, I seek to understand: what’s unique that I can bring to the table and do, which is not currently being done, and which shifts structures and paradigms. We need larger scale change and movement building, and that is what I hope to find sometime soon. Hope this makes sense…

    • You are very welcome. In my self-appointed (and uninvited πŸ˜‰ role of mentor,
      I’m going to respectfully challenge you on a couple of things here:

      1) Your assertion that someone else would do the job if you weren’t there or
      that it is ‘replicable’ – For all the articles and blog posts about how
      social justice-focused Millennials are, its simply not true that all of them
      or even many of them are actually doing the work of creating change.
      Remember – they/we are the second largest age cohort behind Baby Boomers,
      which means that hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of Gen Y-ers are
      working for corporations or other organizations that do not focus on social
      justice. There are only a few of us that have focused our careers on making
      change and even less of us that will be doing it in 5 or 10 years; therefore
      you can’t assume that someone else would do the work if you weren’t there.
      Plus, you are YOU! No one else is like you Akhila and you bring a unique
      vision, purpose, approach and level of insight to your job that no one else
      could, if for no other reason than the fact that you are questioning your
      role and impact.

      2) I can understand that you’re seeking big, huge change; its only a little
      bit crazy for strive for it, but you are in good company with the rest of us
      crazy people who want to change the world :). Here’s the distinction I’m
      making: you can’t make big, huge change without focusing on the smaller
      components that will get you there and without thinking of yourself within
      the context of a broader movement.

      When you were in school and had to write a 25 page paper, did you just sit
      down one day and write it? Hopefully not. Hopefully you put together an
      outline, did some research, gathered all your notes and then drafted it.
      Those are all smaller pieces to the bigger puzzle. The same goes for making
      change: you need to focus on the smaller pieces of what you can do. Can you
      help an individual access vital services? Can you get a law passed or a
      policy changed? Ultimately, can you contribute to the overall effort? I know
      the answer is yes.

      Of course, you are just one person and if you forget about everyone else who
      is the doing the work as well, then you’re not appreciating the bigger
      picture of social change. Let’s get down to brass tacks: you can’t change
      the world by yourself. Sorry – its just not going to happen. But working
      with others in a strategic way to aim at those institutions that are
      preventing change can work.

      I do understand how frustrating and disempowering it can feel when you’re
      not sure that your work is making a difference. When I feel like that, I
      look at thank you notes I’ve received from colleagues and co-workers, I read
      blog and Twitter comments I get from people who have appreciated what I’ve
      written and I try to remember that each little action has an equal and
      positive reaction. I hope you can too.

      • Thank you for your comments πŸ™‚ I agree with everything you say here – no doubt, we cannot do it alone, and we cannot achieve our grand visions for the world all in one shot, but rather piece by piece.

        However, perhaps what I am still unsure about is whether non-profits lead the way in changing structures. Most non-profits do not seem to have much of a role in this. Indeed, it seems like government, policy-making and even politics might be a more effective vehicle to doing so. From everything from the air strikes on Libya to passing laws that provide more social services funding, it seems to me that big change at the structural level seems more likely at the policy/government/legislation level. Of course, most of us don’t have any say in this, but I am starting to wonder whether working at a non-profit is effective at all compared to trying to start working in the govt/policymaking realm.

        • Great question. I think you’re right that many nonprofits don’t lead the way in changing structures. And I think that more of them should (though not all). But there are those that focus on policy-making or policy change. In fact, the reason we have many or most of the protections and rights that we do is because of nonprofits – they’ve consistently advocated for change and lobbied for laws that protect people better.

          The reality is that (most) governments don’t have a true incentive to change themselves or to even help their citizens. Until citizens get out in the streets and foment the change themselves – often with the support of nonprofits – governments proceed along their course unchecked. Perhaps the key here then is for you to research and identify those organizations that are creating policy change and are advocating for the rights of others – and then work there!

          Good luck πŸ™‚

        • Great question. I think you’re right that many nonprofits don’t lead the way in changing structures. And I think that more of them should (though not all). But there are those that focus on policy-making or policy change. In fact, the reason we have many or most of the protections and rights that we do is because of nonprofits – they’ve consistently advocated for change and lobbied for laws that protect people better.

          The reality is that (most) governments don’t have a true incentive to change themselves or to even help their citizens. Until citizens get out in the streets and foment the change themselves – often with the support of nonprofits – governments proceed along their course unchecked. Perhaps the key here then is for you to research and identify those organizations that are creating policy change and are advocating for the rights of others – and then work there!

          Good luck πŸ™‚

  • Elisa and Akhila, this is a fascinating blog conversation to read! I agree that it gets frustrating to trying to squeeze large-scale social change from a stone, but I also think there’s one useful takeaway to hang onto, rather than let go: the vision you have of the social justice you want to see achieved. After all, the frustration comes from knowing what you want to happen without being able to bring it about, right? And knowing what you want to happen is more than most people can accomplish. So many of us struggle for something we can’t really visualize. And visions of change are powerful tools. So I say, cling to your vision of what you want the world to be like, and develop that picture as richly and in as much detail in your mind as you can. Sharing it with others can help spur them to action as well, and that may go a long way toward achieving what you envision.

    • Yes! I think you’ve hit upon an essential piece of how to be an idealist without completely burning out: visualizing what you want to see and, more importantly, getting others involved in that vision! Almost no one ever got involved in a social justice movement without first being recruited there by others; in fact, organizing is the core of any movement (at least IMHO). The wonderful thing about sharing it is not only that more people get involved but that those people bring different talents and skill sets that you don’t necessarily have, which only serves to make the movement even more powerful.

      Thanks Elizabeth!

    • Yes! I think you’ve hit upon an essential piece of how to be an idealist without completely burning out: visualizing what you want to see and, more importantly, getting others involved in that vision! Almost no one ever got involved in a social justice movement without first being recruited there by others; in fact, organizing is the core of any movement (at least IMHO). The wonderful thing about sharing it is not only that more people get involved but that those people bring different talents and skill sets that you don’t necessarily have, which only serves to make the movement even more powerful.

      Thanks Elizabeth!