Trying to “make a difference” after two decades of not contributing much to society is kind of like starting a school project the night before it’s due, or drinking a gallon of milk on a dare – it’s only once you’ve begun that you realize how daunting the task truly is.
The first step towards “making a difference” is understanding the size and scope of the problems you’re trying to solve. This is often very overwhelming. At Futurewise, many of the issues we address are beyond the reach of a single organization, or even a single generation – climate change, social equity, and livable communities will still be major concerns long after any of us are still alive. During our community nights, we’ve taken a look at how institutional racism and heteronormativity are still firmly rooted in American society. And in my spare time, I’ve attended debates about the urban housing affordability crisis and rallies for people living with disabilities that have made me aware of complexities in issues I had never given much attention to before living here. Simply walking through the dozens of Seattle neighborhoods and seeing the stark disparities between the lives of the advantaged and the marginalized have reminded me that the injustices of the past do not fade away with time; instead, they compound, like interest on a debt.
The second step towards “making a difference” is understanding what you can do to help. This is often very underwhelming. Many of the other Duke Engage students I’ve talked to have expressed at least a small degree of disappointment with how inconsequential their work sometimes feels. More often than not, the job of an intern is to do the less glamorous, less desirable “grunt work”, whether it is data entry, canvassing, filing, or in our case, creating stick puppet versions of all 147 members of the Washington State Legislature.* Sometimes, I find myself wondering whether this program deserves funding at all; as one of our guest speakers put it, “you’re taking more than you’re giving”. In all honesty, it’s very unlikely that an unskilled intern with eight weeks and no formal training will dramatically change the direction of their nonprofit. This isn’t pessimism; this is realism.
*This was actually really fun, and I’m proud of how they turned out. Take a look:
**Okay, maybe not the stick-puppet-making.
In a recent interview with the President of the United States, comedian Marc Maron asked Barack Obama about his administration’s legacy, and the frustrations and discouragement that came from trying to make meaningful progress in a gridlocked Congress. His response has stuck with me:
“Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner 2 degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn… but if [I] turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns over.”
Whether you’re a college sophomore or the Leader of the Free World, it can be difficult if not impossible to create sweeping, instant change. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the small improvements we are all capable of making will accumulate, and maybe in a few years or decades or generations, we’ll find ourselves in a very different place than we were.