Wednesday, May 27, 2009

3 Answers for a Young Activist

Once or twice a month I get an email from an aspiring activist, social entrepreneur, or nonprofit professional who has just moved to the Bay Area and wants to set up a phone call to discuss the Bay Area's, "social change scene." I usually agree to the calls. My one requirement is that they send me 3-5 questions beforehand that they want to discuss during our half hour chat.

Recently, a young woman sent me questions that were different than the kind I usually receive. They went beyond, "Where can I find a job?" to, "How do I live my life?" I thought I'd share some of my answers with you, and hope you'll add yours in the comments as well.

1. What are the 3 most common mistakes (the kind that serve as a barrier in achieving your big picture dream) you see people making?

a. Not realizing that "for sure" doesn't exist.
There are very few things in life that are 100% guaranteed, which is scary, but if you have a big dream for your future, chances are achieving it will involve taking some risks and leaps of faith. There will never be a guarantee that you will succeed, but on the bright side, there will never be a guarantee that you will fail! Even if you feel like you need more experience, more skills, more time, more money, more confidence, more whatever before you can pursue your dream, take a step, even if it is a small one, towards your dreams.

b. Not breaking big dreams down into small actions.
People can feel so overwhelmed by their big visions that they become paralyzed. Breaking down what you want to do into small, manageable actions can help you move through your paralysis. Also, taking action often provides answers to questions that thinking will never provide. I thought I wanted to be a massage therapist, until I took a class and realized on the first day that I had to touch hairy, naked people I didn't know! Needless to say, I did not pursue that path.

c. Not balancing planning and flexibility.
Some people are very flexible. They live on intuition and instinct and can change their plans on a moments notice, but if you don't mix some planning in with instinct, you'll spend all of your time putting out fires and taking opportunities that may not ultimately lead you to your goal. Other people are planners. They map out every step that will take them to realize their vision. Unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan, especially if you are starting something new, and you need to be able to come up with alternative solutions and course corrections, or you'll become frustrated and burned out very quickly. To succeed, you'll need to balance flexibility and planning.

2. What are the fundamental rules you live by (the ones that make someone successful) And/or what are the important practices every successful changemaker incorporates into their daily routines?

I can't speak for other people, nor can I say that I do all of these things, but I aspire to follow these "rules."

a. Family and friends come first.
When you are on your death bed, will you be thinking about how you wish you had written more emails, or went to more conferences, or wrote more reports? I doubt it. The call to, "make the world a better place," can be exciting, energizing, and all-consuming, but don't forget the people in your life who mean the most to you. How you live your personal life can be just as world changing and impactful as how you live your professional life.

b. Make time for the three R's: rest, reflection and recreation.
Social change work happens over the long haul. You may not see the results you want to achieve in your lifetime (i.e. the end of poverty). Most people who do social change work do so because they are emotionally connected to a cause. That emotion can give you energy, but it can also exhaust you. It's important to make space for regular (daily, weekly, monthly) times to reflect, rest and recreate to keep you fueled for the long-term.

c. You have to take care of yourself as well as take care of the world.
How many people do you know who work in the social change field and are doing incredible work, but are unhealthy either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually? Just like giving to others can cheer up a self-absorbed person, giving to yourself can energize someone who is always giving to others. As Seane Corn said in my interview with her about Off the Mat, Into the World:
"We use the analogy like when you are on an airplane and they say, 'If there is ever a problem and the pressure drops and the oxygen masks drops from the ceiling, put it on yourself first, and then put it on your child or friend.' It is the same thing. You have to nurture and nourish yourself before you can truly be active in the world in a sustainable way."
3. What promising and exciting trends in the social change space do you see developing in the next 5-10 years?

a. Collaboration.
Whether it takes the form of social media tools, like wikis, or a conference, like Opportunity Collaboration, or a generation, or an economic necessity, I think collaboration is going to be one of the hot trends within and outside of the social change field.

b. Truly sustainable organizations.
With thousands of nonprofits and NGOs already in existence, and new ones starting each year, even without today's economic difficulties, something has to change to keep all of these organizations afloat, not to mention effective. Unfortunately, some programs won't survive these challenging times, but the ones who do will have used new, innovative models like the ones described in A Hybrid Strategy for Tough Times. I believe the result will be more sustainable and healthier organizations than we have today.

c. Truly sustainable activists.
Not only is the way organizations sustain themselves going to change, so is the way social changemakers sustain themselves. Members of Generation Y are looking for jobs with a work-life balance. Organizations like the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation are funding programs that, "couple the expansive power of personal transformation with the public work of repairing societal ills in the United States." Programs like Off the Mat, Into the World are providing tools for people who are, "interested in conscious activism and service." Hopefully, the activist as martyr archetype will be replaced with the activist as well-rounded citizen.

Cross-posted from BlogHer. Britt Bravo is a Big Vision Consultant.

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  1. Brilliant post, Britt -- thank you for sharing every bit of this.

  2. I am impressed an inspired by this insight, both on the part of the young activist and you, Britt! Thank you, as always. :)

  3. I love your vision. I am going to meditate on this one tonight: "Not breaking big dreams down into small actions."

    (so funny my word verification is SHECAN)

  4. Hi Christine, Marguax and Joanna - Thanks for your kinds words. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post (:

  5. First time we've seen your blog. We'd like to post this on Speak Up for Change, our youth blog about nonprofits, activism, world issues, and more! Have a look at and let us know if we can re post this!


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