Week 7: Changing the System

Nina Long of the 2019 CAUSE Leadership Academy

How do we change lives for the better? 

This question is fundamental to who I am and what I want to do with my time, yet it is one that I’m not even close to figuring out. It’s a question which has gotten more complex to answer as I continue to gain experiences. 

This past week led me to delve deeper into what it means to change lives for the better. Monday’s civic engagement workshop featured a panel of leaders from the nonprofit sector and a fundraising workshop. Although each speaker works to improve the lives of others, I found myself frustrated over the barriers they faced. 

Nina Long of the 2019 CAUSE Leadership Academy

Almost every speaker mentioned fundraising as one of the necessary (if not enjoyable) aspects of their jobs, and the last activity of our workshop focused entirely on fundraising. I felt a strong sense of cognitive dissonance: we are working to undo the societal harms created by the wealthy class, yet we are turning around and depending on the wealthy to fund our programs? 

I had lunch with one of my former mentors on Thursday, and I brought up the tensions I felt in the sectors: in the for-profit world, even if your business is a social enterprise, profit is the single most important motivator; if you don’t make money, you will cease to exist. In the nonprofit world, your mission is doing well but you are often bound to the charity of wealthy people. My mentor and I had worked in government together, and she mentioned how often progressive ideas are similarly limited in this sector; we are told we can’t do anything because of “politics.” 

It felt deeply discouraging to know that nowhere was immune to traditional power structures. How can we create change if we’re beholden to capitalism in every sector? But making change has never been easy; if it was, it would already have been done. These institutions have been in place for hundreds of years; of course it will be difficult to undo them. I came back to Richard Leong’s words: “We are making a world that has never existed.” We are doing something that has never been done, so of course it will be a long journey. We do this work because it is hard. 

When I sat down for coffee with Godfrey Plata, Director of Regional Leadership Development at Leadership for Educational Equity and one of our speakers from a previous workshop, he told me that our greatest limiter is often what we imagine is possible. We are intimidated from even trying to make change because it is too hard, too far, and not realistic. But as Elizabeth Warren said this week, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Whatever sector I choose, I will be limited by institutions—but I can choose to not limit my imagination. I can choose to imagine what we can do, and what we should fight for.