Like many of you, I have watched the news with horror as we’ve seen example after example of police brutality and racism, but also with hope as we’ve seen widespread acknowledgment and condemnation of both police brutality and systemic racism. The United States, my country, has always been about horror and hope as it was founded on genocide, slavery, and exploitation as much as on idealism, democracy, and a belief that both perfection and union were possible.
I have been a part of the anti-racism movement since I was in high school in the 1980s. For a lot of that time, I have felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the long, deep, strong roots of exploitation and subjugation that is actually the foundation of the current global marketplace.
My work in international development exposed me to the concept of under-development, that many parts of the world were stripped of their people, resources, culture, and autonomy to benefit those with the best weapons, most resilient immune systems, and biggest appetites for wealth and power.
My chronic feelings of helplessness and hopelessness interspersed with a strong desire to be the change I wanted to see in the world. This has led me to my current work as a career professional. Not only are jobs one way to overcome poverty, but jobs are also one way to make a difference.
Yet, jobs that are focused on making a difference are often underpaid and under-resourced. Non-profit and social justice jobs can be exploitative in a different way, fostering a belief that we have to work ourselves to illness and burnout.
This is not true. When I was interning for the Tanzania Media Women’s Association in 1991, there was a quote on the wall that said “No woman should save the world by breaking her back.” Yet so many of the activists that I’ve worked with and talked to lived right next to that breaking point.
Some of the reasons for this are unpreventable. If who you are--whether you are black or a sexual minority or a member of persecuted religion or in some other way living in a society that wants you dead--if who you are in any of these things, you will live on the breaking point every day.
But sometimes people who want to make a difference find themselves in situations where they are not equipped to deal with it. They push themselves to keep working even when it harms them… and ultimately harms the causes that they are fighting for.
They become martyrs. They fool themselves into believing that the sacrifices of their health and happiness make a difference. But good intentions are not enough. Sacrificing health and happiness doesn’t lead to sustainable change. The world needs effective action at all levels and in all ways much more than it needs a cadre of burnt-out martyrs.
In fact, everyone can make a difference. Everyone can contribute to their community and to their world. Everyone makes some kind of contribution every day. The question is not can you do something but what do your efforts contribute to? Are you contributing to an oppressive, racist system or towards a vision of equity, inclusiveness, and joy?
Ultimately, this is why I became a career professional. I coach and counsel people who want to make a difference through their jobs and their lives. I guide them to the jobs where they can make their best, unique contributions to the causes that matter most to them.
It turns out that finding your way to be the most impactful person can also lead to meaning, joy, fulfillment, and happiness. When we are happy, we have more to give. Our very (happy) presence can change lives in a way that being burnt out and bitter never can.
If you are someone who has responded to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile with a strong desire to do something, to make things better, I want to share with you what I’ve learned to help people take effective action and make a positive difference.
The sense of overwhelm and the accompanying fear, paralysis, and depression can keep us stuck and craving a distraction to take the pain away. That’s how the cycle of forgetting and recreating these tragedies continues.
You can stop that cycle! You can change your actions. If you are ready to change, now’s the time.
The process is straightforward. Know yourself. Identify your strengths. Understand what brings you joy. Get clear about what you want to contribute to. Do your research. Identify what YOU can do to make a contribution. Do that work. Make mistakes. Learn. Tolerate discomfort. Celebrate successes, no matter how small. Laugh.
Intermediate level: Collaborate with others. Do something that gives you joy EVERY SINGLE DAY. Have compassion for yourself and others. Learn about others. Understand that “different” does not equal “bad” or “wrong.”
Advanced level: Understand why people take the actions that they do. Know what you can control and what you can’t. Know that change is hard and that everything from your own nervous system to the global economic structure will keep coming back to the status quo without patient, persistent, gentle, compassionate, and informed effort.
OK, maybe the process isn’t completely straightforward! But it also isn’t rocket science. Ultimately, it’s about taking sustainable action, identifying something you can do every day, and then doing it.
I developed a process of career design to support people who want to make a difference. I’m building on this process to support people more generally. Making a difference is not about finding a job but about transforming your life to become a beacon of hope and action. If you want this transformation, join my Facebook group, follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn to get an action step every day.
As a white woman, I’ll be focusing on the culture I know best so some of these steps will be for white people wanting to be an ally and anti-racist. At the same time, I hope that everyone who wants to make a difference can benefit.
We are living in extraordinary times. We need extraordinary people to do the hard work to make the world a place where everyone can laugh, play, love, and be themselves without fear.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
-Mahatma Gandhi (what he REALLY said instead of “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Although that’s a good sentiment too!)
Human beings are better able to learn, change, transform, and be effective when we feel safe and relaxed. I’ve created a guided meditation video that you can use anytime to create safety and relaxation for yourself so you can work on what matters. The meditation is less than 5 minutes and you end up in a state of calmness and clarity.