The Practical Idealism Project: Stories from the Field
IntroductionSTEFANIE AMBROSIO: Good evening and welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. My name is Stefanie Ambrosio, Program Assistant for the Carnegie New Leaders.
Unfortunately, the Director of the Program, Devin Stewart, will not be joining us tonight, for he is teaching a class at NYU. In his place, we are honored to have Ms. Christine Bader, Advisor to Professor John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Business and Human Rights.
It is also with great pleasure that we have Ms. Alissa Wilson here to speak on "The Practical Idealism Project: Stories from the Field."
I thank you all for attending this Carnegie New Leaders event.
With that, let's all please welcome Ms. Bader and Ms. Wilson.
CHRISTINE BADER: Thank you, everybody, so much for coming here tonight. I've really been looking forward to this for a while.
I'm going to introduce Alissa and just give a brief introduction, then she's going to talk about her project, and then we're going to have a nice, relaxed, interactive conversation.
You've got Alissa's bio in front of you. She's a Policy Associate covering peace and security issues for the American Friends Service Committee. She has been very busy lately, because her portfolio includes Iran. The AFSC has been carrying out service and development, social justice, and peace programs throughout the world since 1917. Prior to this, Alissa was a researcher in ethics and human development at Tufts, where she also got her Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She has lots of impressive bits and pieces on her c.v., which, again, you have in front of you.
Most importantly in my view, she holds a B.A. in Political Science from Amherst College—hooray! We have a mutual Amherst friend, who is responsible for the two of us meeting last year, and I was so excited to hear about what she was doing. I asked that friend yesterday if she had any tidbits to share about Alissa to provide a little-bit-more-nuanced-than-the-usual bio. She just shared that she was so proud that Alissa was nominated by her fellow Fletcherites to deliver the Class Day speech at graduation. She said that only did she speak well, but she sang beautifully, and that her presence is always extremely calming.
Alissa's calming presence most certainly served her well for the project that she is here to talk about tonight, and that's the Practical Idealism Project, which saw Alissa conducting about 40 interviews with people who have done all sorts of practical idealist jobs all over the world, which is what she is here to tell us about tonight.
The project was officially born in November 2005. Again, Alissa will tell us all about these fascinating conversations with people meant to guide those of us who want to work in social change but lack examples or resources to help figure out how to do so in a way that's effective and responsible.
If you haven't yet seen the book, here it is. It's available on Amazon.com. If you go to practicalidealists.org, you can also get a few of the full interview transcripts that didn't make it into the book.
With that, Alissa, take it away.
DiscussionALISSA WILSON: Thank you.
I'm glad that you're all here. Thanks for coming.
Because I think of the Carnegie Council as this fabulous place, I was a little bit more intimidated to talk to you than I was to the 400-plus people who I spoke to on Class Day. I was like, "Oh no. They all know so much already. What can I share?" So I wanted this to just be like a conversation.
It took us a minute to get here because of lots of world changes. So there are lots of stories that I will probably forget. I brought my trusty copy to remind myself.
The Practical Idealism Project was basically born out of discussions that John Hammock and I had in a class at Fletcher. It was a class on Globalization, Development, and Humanitarianism, about ethics and personal transformation.
John is a fabulous human being, full stop. He was a Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He got his Ph.D. from Tufts and then went to work doing microfinance at ACCION in Latin America. He quit that job. He was the executive director of ACCION. This will come back later on. He quit the job when he felt like they were taking too much U.S. government money. In the 1980s in Latin America the United States was doing some things that were not promoting the end goal of ACCION. It worked out for him, because he ended up being the executive director of Oxfam America, growing it from a church basement to the major player that we know today.
He quit that job—he likes to quit things. He grows things and then he quits them—to start the Famine Center at Tufts [now known as the Feinstein International Center]. They created the Sphere Standards, which is the minimum set of assistance requirements that you can expect if you are a refugee being helped by the international community.
He had this class on ethics and personal transformation that everybody wanted to get into. So he made all these requirements. Basically, it was people who had done a lot of thinking about development and conflict resolution and humanitarianism, and we were writing these 20-page papers with these great theses and researching in the library all the time.
But this class was about what you actually thought, what you actually think about your work, not just the methodology of doing your work and how to make your work more effective. The class encompassed all of those questions.
During one of the classes, he expressed an interest in getting other people to look at social change and how you can create an environment where more people will do this kind of work and stick with it, because he had been getting a lot of students at Fletcher who were like "I want to come, I want to change the world, I want to be like you," and then they would leave Fletcher and they were like "And I am $60,000 worth in debt, I basically have bought a new home yet I have no place to live, and what am I going to do about this?"
So two of us came to his office to talk about how we could get more people interested. I had come from, a couple of years earlier, a fellowship at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, looking at voluntary action for the public good and what does that mean—What does it mean to be "the public?" Voluntary action, does that mean it's unpaid? What are the implications here? So we got into this great conversation.
I'm going to fast-forward a little bit to the next year, when I was looking for a job and had just done this great dance workshop and was like "Now I need to get serious." We ended up having a talk about how we can maybe re-engage in some of those discussions.
He said, "You know, I think I can get some funding to go and talk to interesting people about what they're doing."
You know, how often does somebody say, "Hey, do you want to travel the country and talk to interesting people?" I was like, "Yes, you can sign me up."
And so we spent about two years identifying folks and talking to them, getting their lessons learned, in terms of how to be effective in their own positions, and then in terms of how to encourage other people to make this leap.
Our title is a little sensational, "Changing the World and Getting Paid," because we wanted to make the point that it was okay, you could change the world and still have a good salary.
So our criteria were pretty broad. We wanted people who were within ten years of graduating from their last degree, whether that was a Ph.D., a B.A., an M.B.A., because we wanted people who remembered what it was like to try to form a career. When I was at this Center on Philanthropy fellowship, we talked to all these great people—we talked to Jonathan Fanton at MacArthur [former president of John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation]—people who others work their whole careers and never get to have access to them.
They had great ideas. But when it came to what the practical steps are, they had come from eras maybe where if you were smart and you could talk a good game you were in. The way things seem to be going now is there's this massive professionalization of all of these spheres. Like when the person who started my fellowship at the Center on Philanthropy started his job as the Exxon Education Foundation Director, there was no such thing as a Philanthropy Masters. You have a good idea, you fund it, it's done.
And we were trying also to get a little bit of geographic diversity. So we hit the big ones—New York, D.C., Boston—but I also went to Detroit and Greensboro, North Carolina, just to try to get a sense of what people were doing in places where there was a lot of support for them.
In The Triangle—Raleigh-Durham, Chapel Hill—in North Carolina, that is the most progressive community you ever want to visit. Everyone has support. Yeah, I was surprised too.
But when you go out to Greensboro, it is a totally different issue. And so
when you're trying to do bridging the digital divide in Greensboro, North Carolina,
with urban kids—you don't think of anyone in Greensboro as urban if you're
from New York, which I am—that's my normative bias—it's a different
way of thinking, it's a different way of approaching people, and it's a different
way of explaining what you're trying to do.
It might not be about a rights-based approach, which would fly a lot better
in Boston. It's about "this is our work force and how do we make it stronger?"
So I took planes, trains, automobiles, buses. Being a New Yorker, I only learned how to drive a couple years out of college. I had unlearned it while I was in Nigeria during grad school, so I had to get that skill back.
I was trying to talk to people when we were in the other room [before this meeting started] about who they were and what they were doing so I could figure out what stories I wanted to tell. I don't feel like I talked to enough of you, because now there are a lot more of you here.
So I figure I will start off and then maybe I'll just do it at random, whoever looks good on this list.
One person I wanted to talk about was Josh Dorfman. He is in your city. He is in Williamsburg. He was hands-down my favorite—let me not say that.
He was one of the most fun interviews, because he started the interview off by beatboxing, and no one else had attempted to give me a musical interlude. I met him down in this loft-like space in Williamsburg at Vivavi, which is an environmentally responsible design firm.
Josh is this guy who lives really hard. You know, there are some people you meet and they're just like "I had this thought and I am going to go for it." There might be some of you—is there anyone in this room who feels like that about themselves? Well, I'll give you his example and then we'll go to someone else who's a little more calm.
He graduated from college, had studied abroad, and was really interested in what was happening with China, and felt that because of geopolitical developments this was the next big thing. It was in 1993.
So he went to China and taught English. And then he had like a little side part-time job at the Kryptonite bike lock factory in Nanjing, where he said they basically just wanted him to show up every once in a while, let people know that the central office does care about them.
After a while, he had this thought. He said, "Why don't you try not making bike locks to export to America? There are people in China who ride bikes. Maybe we should sell bike locks here." He told this to Kryptonite.
They said, "You know, that's a really good idea.Why don't you open up an office and you can do this?"
So here he is. He's like two or three years out of college, doing Kryptonite bike lock sales in Nanjing.
After a while, he decided, "This has been a really great experience. I've got a lot of business information. I know how to do some things"—because sometimes the best knowledge comes from just going and jumping in—"but I'm going to go back to the United States and I'm going to go to business school to round out what I know, and maybe it would be a good idea for me to come back to China and work with other American companies who need to understand what it means to bridge cultures."
So he went to business school. He fell in love with this woman. She was from Germany. So he was like, "How do I get closer to Europe?" while he's still in business school. He went to Thunderbird. He then decided that he would do an internship in Geneva. So he's there.
So, okay, first he's got this China business experience, and then he's in Geneva learning about supply chains. His friends were like "this is very unsexy." But he was like "No, this is really important, you need to have a very rounded sense of business."
Then he ended up coming back. It was the dot-com era, before the bubble burst. He did some dot-com work.
But then he did a kind of a reevaluation moment. "This is not who I want to be. I don't want to be a dot-com person."
He had gotten a really sweet opportunity. He was flying to London, all these places. I think that sometimes—you know, in the interviews and just talking to my own friends—it's easy to be like "This is a fabulous life style. But, hold on. It's not exactly the end goal that I had mind."
So he says he fabricated an early life crisis and went to Montana. In Montana he was like "I'm going to figure it all out." And then it was snowing, and he was like "No, not anymore."
So a hiccup. He decided to do screenwriting in L.A. because he loved books. But the screenwriting part comes in that he learned how to craft a story. So in each of these experiences he's taking something from it. He learned how to craft a story. He learned how to engage people.
But then he was like "This really isn't for me. I went to Thunderbird. I'm interested in international affairs. L.A. screenwriting, while it sounds really sexy, is probably not my lifelong goal."
So he comes up with this idea that is going to bring in the business stuff that he's interested in and the China stuff that he's interested in, which is to do something that's a socially responsible business. Because one of the things that he has thought about along the way is that "If China keeps on its development path, there will be so many people driving cars that the environment is going to be adversely affected, and I don't want to be part of that," because he felt like that's what he was doing; he was part of that cycle.
But he knew that what he wanted to do to work against that cycle was not work for a nonprofit because the first thing he said to me was "I don't wear Birkenstocks, I don't wear burlap. That's not my community. My community is the entrepreneurs and the business folks."
So he built this from the ground up and put part of his life on hold. And now he has got this vibrant company. He also has a radio show, a serious radio show, and I think he is in conversations about a television show called "The Lazy Environmentalist" with Sundance—part of that thing about how do we craft a message to bring people in so that they can see his vision and engage in it as well, because it's great to have a vision, but not if you can't get people onboard with you!
And then there are people—let's see who's a little bit calmer.
You know, for some reason we had a lot of people who were ready to strike out on their own and people who didn't know each other.
I was talking to somebody earlier about how part of our process was asking people who we knew, "Hey, who would you recommend that we talk to?" or looking to see who had been profiled in something on Net Impact.
But there were people who didn't know each other, who were just like "I am going to strike out and make this happen."
So, for a second, someone like Noah Merrill, who started off in a lot more kind of traditional, nonprofit setting, where he worked for the American Friends Service Committee before I even got there, and was doing kind of more traditional organizing work about the Iraq war and trying to inform his community and see what people could do to work against it. But then at a certain point he was in Jordan and saw what was happening with Iraqi refugees, and decided that it was time to help Americans know what they could do about this issue, and now he runs Direct Aid Iraq.
In terms of his own reevaluation, continuous reevaluation, it was where did he want to be working: Did he want to make a change with U.S. communities so that they understood more about the impact of the war, or did he want to make a change that more directly impacted a community abroad, where he was still informing people in the United States but it was really a direct result that he could see?
I think sometimes that's one of the questions that people are grappling with. It's like I do policy work, and I spent some sleepless nights about the F-22 last week and writing action alerts. Is that what I want to do? Or would I rather be in Burundi doing something with elections and peace-building, because if the elections go badly conflict might break out again?
So those reevaluation points—sometimes you actually do something with them, like Noah did in his own life and like Josh did like a thousand times. But sometimes you need to kind of sit where you are and try to figure out what the lessons learned are for that policy work so that if you go and work in Burundi, if the peace agreement holds and there are more development promises made, you understand what it means to make sure the United States upholds their funding commitments and things like that.
CHRISTINE BADER: So while you're on that topic of the questions that you found that people ask themselves, one of the things that I really enjoyed about the book is that there are these incredibly disparate stories. I mean we don't know a lot of Josh Dorfmans, right?
ALISSA WILSON: Yeah, it's true.
CHRISTINE BADER: They're really disparate stories. Some of them you can sort of see yourself more in than others. But then you managed to present these very kinds of deep questions in a really straightforward way.
If you look at the table of contents, it's like skills, work and jobs, personal finance, and it walks through some questions that are really quite fundamental and deep, but they are presented in a way that's totally accessible: What are your values? What do you believe in? How much money is enough for you to live on? I mean it's presented in a way that "Okay, I can walk myself through these and it will make me think."
So one of the questions that I had for you is: in the process of doing all of these crazy disparate interviews and then distilling it down, did these themes emerge over the course of that process as the things that you found in common—like everybody kind of thought about money a little bit, everybody thought about the skills that he had? Or was that your framework going into the interviews, of "Okay, this is what I'm gathering, that people who are seeking guidance want to know?" Can you just maybe talk a little bit about the process of going from the interviews to how you structured it?
ALISSA WILSON: Some of it was in the questions.
I should have said the other criterion for being interviewed was that you paid your own bills, because there are a lot of people whose parents can fund their lives and you can have these fabulous jobs, and you're like "Yeah, and I live in a loft in SoHo and I never have to pay a bill ever. It's great."
One of the questions that we had for the interviews was "How much is enough?" because it's a different answer for so many people, but it's something that I think anyone who wants to have a practical idealist career has thought about.
So we were talking about student loans, rent, if you live in someplace like New York City. We really wanted people to get at that. So sometimes our questions are a little bit disingenuous, because we're like "We know what the answers are. We want you to think about them."
And in terms of values and passions—in our writing team John is sometimes like "We are going to take over the world." We had a question about whether we wanted the book to say "It is your responsibility to go out and do something socially responsible because the world is in a bad place, and if you exist you can do something to help it"; or if you wanted to say: "Think about your values. Do you live in the world that you want to live in? What do your values tell you about the world that you want to live in? What are your passions? How do you make sure that your values are met with a career that also has you engaging your passions?"
So at the end of the day someone could say, "You know, this does not lead me to social change work," if they're not feeling really grounded in their values or if their values don't say X or Y. But of course, the people we talked to, their values were grounded in that.
We really wanted people to read some of the stories and then think about their own process was. But going from these 40 massive interview transcripts, because I'm long-winded and I like to hear people talk about themselves because people are so interesting—it was a lot of data mining to get through.
And then, some of the folks who were more traditional, like Laura Hogshead, in terms of "I went to grad school, and then I did the presidential management fellowship at HUD, and then I got an offer to go and be associate director for the Edwards' Poverty Alleviation Center at Chapel Hill, and now I'm back at the House Appropriations Office." They were not like "And then I was in China, and then I was screenwriting."
But they still had that same process of "What are my values? What are my passions?" As Laura said, "At the end of the day, I think that people should be housed and that housing is a human right. Right now I'm passionate about government service because I think that everyone should have access through that vehicle. But now I have this great opportunity to go work with Edwards," who for her was like an amazing figure.
CHRISTINE BADER: That's really interesting, because that conveniently gets me to another question that I had, which was: Upon first read, it did read to me like it was more targeted towards people who were coming out of school, because it's sort of about asking these really big-picture questions and then choosing a path. I guess what I was a little bit hungry for, and thinking about the crowd that was likely to be here tonight and thinking about my own peers, I was hungering for a little bit, a slightly different decision-making process for a slightly older crowd. As you say, there are a lot of people in the book who really went for it in a big way, and either took a really big risk or made a 180-degree change. And maybe that's because it sounds as if you were asking people to recommend people, they would recommend people who they had heard of, who took a bolder step.
I guess I was thinking about the kind of our peers who—I mean some people have been laid off and they are forced to go through a more dramatic evaluation. But I was actually looking for stories of people who wanted to make more incremental changes and wanted to think about what their values were, and try to still work with—they might not be ready to leave their industry or their company, or even their job. But then how can you make sort of incremental change, just try to make sure, do a check on yourself, and see if you're really living who you want to be.
ALISSA WILSON: Having the dream—not the dream, but that's my way of—
CHRISTINE BADER: But the dream is not so far from where you are today.
ALISSA WILSON: Right. You're like on the path—
CHRISTINE BADER: But it's incremental choices and changes. Were there people that you found who did a kind of reevaluation but it didn't result in a huge leap, they just—
ALISSA WILSON: Like a shift.
CHRISTINE BADER: Yes.
ALISSA WILSON: I think that Laura Hogshead, who I just mentioned, made smaller shifts. She did change jobs, but that was more in terms of the opportunities that were open to her.
One of the things I was trying to write about on my way down here was how do you internalize this when it's a smaller shift or you're in a job market that's like you are never going to leave your job, it's very secure, because in a way the book is geared towards people who have just left an educational something, whether it was undergrad or you're at Fletcher.
But the reevaluation is sort of the same. I mean sometimes you do still need to check in with your values and understand are they shifting, are they changing, and is my work still going towards that goal?
So there's the macro level of "Okay, I'm still working in conflict resolution or poverty alleviation," but then there's the micro, everyday level of "Are my programs and my projects using the methodologies that I want them to? Are they reflecting the larger ethical framework that I'm trying to work with?" So you do the effectiveness evaluations, in terms of "Is it working, does it have the outcome that I want," but then the evaluations that say "Are the ethical underpinnings there, and not just outcomes that look a certain way?"
But as I'm talking I'm like "Who has done smaller changes?" You know what? It's funny. The people that we interviewed, only one person was like someone I saw. Everybody else—and it's weird. So it means that hidden in your life somewhere is probably someone who is making these really drastic changes that either they're billing as changes that are not that drastic, which, as someone who has made drastic changes in my life, you're like "No, it flows very easily like this," so it looks very coordinated. I look at my bio sometimes, and I'm like "Yes, that's fabulous!" But, you know, while I was doing it I was like "Okay, now I'm unemployed for three months and what am I doing now? I'm on my mother's sofa."
I think Pete Girard is someone. He works for Timberland doing environmental impacts in their factories and their business. He started out on the path of trying to explore socially responsible business and did the more traditional "How do I get a better job, a better job, a better job?" I don't think there was ever a step where he was like "I need to totally change what I'm doing." But when you're looking for those better job opportunities or when you're looking to implement a new program or project, you know that's a moment where you can do an evaluation that you can implement in that new endeavor.
We were kind of wondering: Who is going to get stuff out of this? They said, "People who are making big changes." But are the things that you need to think about when you're making those big changes also things that you need to think about just like every six months?
QUESTION: I just have a very simple question. Can you tell us more about Josh Dorfman's business, what exactly he's doing?
ALISSA WILSON: He sells high-end furniture, like a $3,000 bed or chairs. He brings together businesses that are making these products, and he puts them onto the market. So in terms of his marketing and his vision, he markets to people who work for places where they make a lot of money. It's billed in terms of "It's good, it's designed well, and you're still doing something; you're being this lazy environmentalist." So a lot of the people who he went to school with, who are in traditional business capacities, are the people that he's selling to. He doesn't design them, but he finds other companies to bring things together with.
CHRISTINE BADER: I'll also just point out the fact that in the appendix of the book there are short biographies of all of the interviewees and then there are a few of the full interviews. And there are a few of them on the website, right?
ALISSA WILSON: Yes. And Josh's interview actually is in here.
QUESTION: Could you give us a visual picture of how you actually set these interviews up? Did you call them? Was there a pre-interview? Did you go to their place of employment? Did you go to their home? Did you go to their studio? And the questions that you came up with, did you ask some of those pre-questions on the phone or were they actually directed during the time when you were conducting the interviews?
ALISSA WILSON: Most people I had their names. I emailed them. Because we were going through a university setting, our funding was from a university, or a university conduit, we had to do an internal review board process. So our questions were already set and we had to get them to give a certain type of permission to have their stories made public. So that was sent to them ahead of time.
Also, because I thought, "You know, if you're really thinking about these issues, I'd love to hear that answer," and people can do it definitely off-the-cuff, but if there is some prior thought behind it—There were a couple of people who said, "You know, I looked at those questions and I thought I hadn't really thought about these things for a while, and it made me kind of wonder about some of the choices that I'm making."
But most of the time people hadn't actually looked at the stuff before I got there, because you bring your hard copy and they're like "Oh, yeah, yeah, right, it says 2 o'clock."
I usually would go to their workplace. My shtick was "I will meet you wherever you have time to do this because in a sense you are really doing us a service."
It was just us and a recorder that's probably about that size, and we would just talk. "Tell me about why you're doing this and tell me about what you like about your job and tell me about what really frustrates you about your job, how you started out, tips that you would have for other people trying to start in this profession."
QUESTION: How did you use the information that you got from the interviews in the process of writing to inform your own decision-making? With this flood of information, how did you then select what you wanted to use?
ALISSA WILSON: One thing I forgot to say was in the beginning our vision was that this was going to be a book of interviews. We were going to just put it together and people could read through them. They would be funny and they would be poignant. And then we were like "That's ridiculous!" So we have a number of interviews in here, but we were like "We need narrative, we need themes."
I've never written a dissertation, so unscientific method, right? I basically sat down and read all of the interviews and thought to myself, "What am I hearing from them?"
I had a yellow pad—this might not be the question that you're actually asking—and every time somebody talked about something I made a note of it. Then I tallied up what everyone seemed to hit on and what were some of the kind of outliers that seemed really kind of interesting but a little bit crazy.
And then we also had ideas of what we wanted people to be thinking about. Like we wanted people to be thinking about skills and what it meant to have the skills to make something happen. Because I know in my own life, the new skill set that I picked up was lobbying. I'm a born-again lobbyist I say, because it wasn't something that was in my background, yet to do policy work you need to be lobbying.
And so just to be able to tell people, "Hey, if you're interested in this kind of thing, these are some of the skills that you need to have and to be identifying about yourself."
So the book has got these themes, and it's narrative and it's skills, but it's also kind of a little bit of a workbook with all these questions so that people can really be interfacing with these ideas.
CHRISTINE BADER: What I was hoping to ask was then how did you use that information that you gathered for your own personal career development?
ALISSA WILSON: Oh me, Alissa?
CHRISTINE BADER: Yes.
ALISSA WILSON: Oh. Well, to be completely honest, I think one of the largest impacts that the book had was that when we were finished with a lot of the writing and I sat down with John at our favorite diner, for grilled cheese and sweet potato fries, and he said, "Well, what do you want to do now? Do you want to try to open up a center?" He's got a really great fund-raising track record. I said, "No. I want to go and come back to this conflict resolution work, this security work."
So for me—and I think part of the advantage of having bold stories, when most of us live our lives in a much calmer way, is that you can see that somebody ran twice as hard as you did towards the edge of a cliff and they actually were okay. I'm not running that hard toward the cliff. I still have my Amherst and Fletcher degrees and my experience in Nigeria. But it really was like, upon further reflection, I wanted to do something that left a good impact for the people that I admire, which is people who are trying to do this kind of work, but that really in my heart I wanted to come back to the conflict resolution work. It would have been very comfortable to just live in Cambridge and open up a practical idealist institute and do workshops, but that wasn't where I was.
QUESTION: I was wondering what influence failures—how they factor in these stories, and whether people talk about when they tried to achieve something and then they realized they didn't have the skills or they weren't going to be able to accomplish it, and how they maybe persisted beyond that.
ALISSA WILSON: First, who were failures? We talk about quitting. We don't talk about failures as failures that much.
So this is a story about something that could possibly not sound like a failure but was not achieving the goals that it had set out to do in a more complete way. Wait. Hold on. Sorry. Let me go back to the book before I tell you something that is slightly inaccurate.
James Forman, again, he's one of these people—well, he's pretty circumspect. He was a criminal defender. He worked for the public defender's office. He did a lot of juvenile cases. He got really frustrated with his job, because he felt like there are more ways than the penal system to get people back onto the right path. There were judges who would agree to do it, but there weren't programs that he could send these kids to. So he was like "I'm young, I am smart, I can start a program."
And he did. It was like six kids. And so his goal was a whole lot bigger. He was like "This is really just not meeting the need and this isn't a process that we can upscale and it's not something that I can get other people to do. It's just not a sustainable thing." So the year was fine, but he realized that it was not at all meeting what the goal was.
I think, like a lot of people, he just took a step back and thought about "What is it that we need to be doing?" He did this on a year that was a sabbatical year from his office, so he didn't have to quit his job and be a pauper.
They had to revamp the entire program. So it was a lot of soul searching about effectiveness, like models of effectiveness, and talking to other educators.
I think most of the people that we had in the book took—or this is what they like to tell you, right, because you've only known me for half an hour and you're not going to tell me about your deepest, darkest failure, although I'd love to hear it—you know, like James, he took all that information and tried again with a completely different model and tried something that was a little bit more out of his comfort zone. And that worked, and he has been really successful now.
And there were also just setbacks. Like there was a woman who—it was either Peace Corps and then a legal job, who was doing legal defense work in the South Pacific. She got really sick. So it was clear that she could not do that kind of work anymore. She had to be home. She had to be under medical supervision. So it seemed like a huge setback, because she did not want to be in Michigan; she wanted to be traveling around the world. What she turned that into was doing legal work with refugees in Detroit who are seeking asylum either in the United States or in Canada.
So there were definitely setbacks that people had. And refugee work in Detroit isn't as sexy as "We're in Sudan and we're talking to—." But, you know, it really was able to fulfill what she wanted to do in terms of working with international communities, but also the limitation that she had in terms of needing to be close to medical facilities.
CHRISTINE BADER: I think that actually leads to one other question that I had about a theme that I sort of picked up but I wasn't sure if you would have culled it out explicitly or not, and that was of compromise. So there seemed to be a lot of conversations of "Okay, well I really want to live there, but I can't because family is here" or "I'd really like to do that role, but I'm not going to make enough money, so I'm going to take a role where I can pay my rent, but it's not quite what I want." There's a lot of compromise. I just wanted to see if you think that that's an essential part of being a practical idealist, or is it just a part of life, or is it actually "No, you don't have to compromise at all, you can figure it out; it just might not look like what you thought it was going to look like"?
ALISSA WILSON: Can it be all of those?
CHRISTINE BADER: Sure.
ALISSA: So in the book we—because we were trying to look at "How do we explain this in a way that"—because compromise sometimes gets a bad rap. But, you know, mediating your life's needs is something that we all have to do. So we were like "It's a balance between flexibility and stubbornness."
But yes, compromise is very important. I think in the endgame maybe the last thing you said, like "No, we're going to make it work, but, you know, we're"—okay, sorry, I do work for a Quaker organization—on the journey to making it work for quite some time, and trying to figure out what you need to pull in to make it work, so that in the end there is a lot of compromise that has to go on.
But compromise in the best sense of the word, in the sense that you're pulling in parts of your life that are very realistic or practical and that respond to your ideals in that idealistic sense, because at the end of the day it would just be a book about idealism if there wasn't the compromise part, because with the practical component it means that often you have to do things that you are not very excited about.
Like John Hammock is this guy who would probably wear a T-shirt and some khakis every single day of his life, but, you know, working at Oxfam, maybe in the office that was okay. But it's not a great high-drama example.
One that would probably would be better is having to leave your family. With Oxfam, he brought Oxfam to Boston. It was still small enough so that he could do that. But he knew that in his life he and his wife had made the decision to live in Boston. They had already had a family and that was just what it had to be. So it was like "Well, if you move it to Boston I will do it." So one could say that he had to make some compromises because there might have been other jobs that wouldn't have been willing to do that. But in having to make those compromises he actually found something that was even better, maybe a better fit for him.
QUESTION: On the practical financial side of things, did you find that either people felt guilty about making a salary on the nonprofit side or that there was resistance from the outside community about people making a decent wage doing this work? It sounds like John went into business and did well in business because that was the only way he could make a decent wage. Did you find a change in attitude that people can make, like have a family—maybe not have the three-car garage, but live a decent lifestyle and raise a family and be a provider and work in the nonprofit sector without either resentment or push-back from funders, or did they feel guilt about that that they need to be poor in order to do this work?
ALISSA WILSON: No, actually. It's a really good question. But no. People felt like they were making a living wage and feeling pretty good. I think often that had to do with—I'm kind of making a stretch guess here—but their family, like what the socioeconomic status of their family was, because if their living wage in the nonprofit community was sort of average for what their socioeconomic expectations were, they were just like "This is kind of where I'm supposed to be in my life, so this is what I make."
We had probably a vast array of salaries that people were making. But we only really had one person who had taken a vow of poverty and would have known what it was like to live the other way. She lives in Buenos Aires and is by far the most progressive person of the whole endeavor.
But yeah, people generally felt pretty good. The only time that the guilt and the other sentiment came up like in a very strong way was with Jeff Deutsch, who is a graphic designer at Oxfam. He was talking about it in terms of people who work in business or the private sector and assume that he does not think good things about them because they work in that way.
But yeah, the feeling bad about money—I think often people had come—like maybe in their first job they didn't make so much money, so they were just feeling "Yes, I am here and it is a good thing."
QUESTION: The starting points of these people, like the families that they came from, did any of them happen to come from particularly rich or poor families, and do you think that that starting point had anything to do with how practical their idealism is allowed to be?
ALISSA WILSON: I think that is a fabulous question. We were trying to figure out was it skewed because a lot of these people were friends of friends, and so you've got a middle-class sampling. There were times when we'd ask professors, so sometimes it was who was going to their college or university. I was really dismayed that a lot of the people we spoke with came from backgrounds where they really had safety nets. A lot of them were like "I would never engage in it," but at the end of the day there might have been a safety net. I think that definitely has an effect on the decisions that people make, because if you know—even if you say "I will never use that safety net," subconsciously you know it's there.
And also you know more about what your options are. You know more about the fact that nonprofit work doesn't mean taking a vow of poverty. Whereas if you don't come from an experience that has so much of a view of what it means to do social change work, or that you can do business in a socially responsible way, you may think of nonprofit or socially responsible equating vow of poverty and so you're not going to touch it.
I think after this project one of my major goals was to preach the gospel of "You can make money doing this," because people need to know that you don't have to take the unpaid internships. It may take more digging. Now there are more college and university pools of money available. When I went to Amherst, it was like "You want to do something fun over the summer, like save somebody's life? You don't get a dime." Now it's "You can apply for this fund, we'll give you $5,000." So there are a lot more ways to do it.
But I think in terms of the people we interviewed, there definitely was a skew towards people who had a little bit of a safety net.
CHRISTINE BADER: I want to conclude on time, even though obviously people want to continue the discussion. Alissa is going to hang out for a couple minutes. But you can always read the book, go to the website—
ALISSA WILSON: Or send me an email.
CHRISTINE BADER: I really want to thank Alissa. I think it's clear that Alissa is someone who cannot only write very beautifully about practical idealists but that she is a beautiful practical idealist.
Please join me in thanking Alissa.
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