I could be a hopeless optimist, but it seems that more people are thinking deeply about the kinds of lives they want to lead as life has become harder in our country. Recently I was invited to speak to students in a Nonprofit Leadership graduate program on “How to Build a Career Based on Social Justice Principles.” It gave me a chance to think about what has worked for me, and these are the guidelines I shared that evening:
1. Do the work you think needs to be done — whether you get paid for it or not. Our life “careers” are made up of the work we do for pay as well as what we choose to do in our personal time. Instead of dreaming of getting paid to do the work you truly believe in, go ahead and do it now as a volunteer. All the important justice movements of our times – civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, environmental protection — were started and driven by volunteers whose lives were transformed by their participation.
2. Live a modest life. Don’t let your desire for “stuff” determine your life choices. Too many people get stuck in work they don’t respect only because they have to support a lifestyle that is too expensive to sustain while also doing justice work. Our lifestyles can control our lives rather than the other way around.
3. Choose carefully the influences in your life. The people you hang out with, the images you’re exposed to, even the homes of your friends all influence your decisions. Gravitate towards people whose lives you respect and who are hopeful and engaged in making change. And protect yourself from commercial bombardments that tell you to buy more.
4. Look for inspiration. Make a point of reading or hearing the messages of people who inspire you to seek justice. We all need inspiration to be the people we want to be.
5. Look for humane environments in which to work or volunteer. Some organizations truly value their staff or volunteers; others don’t. Look for situations where your talents are valued, where you have an opportunity to develop new skills, and where you have opportunities to be a leader.
6. Periodically assess whether you’re living the life you want to live. Reflect on whether you’re feeling proud of your contributions or discouraged. You may need to make a change to maintain your commitment to justice principles. This is a good issue to reflect on with a trusted friend or potential mentor – one of those people whose life choices you respect.
7. Be willing to take risks that can help keep you honest and committed. This could include participating in a civil disobedience action or traveling on a peace delegation to a country in turmoil. Or finally quitting a job that is not meaningful. But of course it’s important to be realistic about financial consequences especially in these difficult economic times.
8. Live a balanced life. Justice movements cannot fulfill all our needs for love, companionship, support and meaning in our lives. Expecting them to be all and do all will only lead to disappointment and leave you bitter. The happier and more stable your life is, the bigger a contribution you will be able to make.
Do these practices make life choices easy? No. But hopefully you’ll find some of them helpful in keeping your life on track. As my grown son once asked, “Why didn’t you tell us that being an adult is so hard?”