We’re often told inspiring stories about people who have contributed to society in meaningful ways. These stories can often be encouraging and empowering; but sometimes hearing about leaders’ many accomplishments can be overwhelming. We may want to follow in their footsteps, but don’t know where or how to begin.
I talked to 5 successful young professionals involved in global justice work who gave me practical advice on how to get involved, based on the early experiences that led them to where they are today. I found their journeys motivating and, importantly, accessible. They painted a picture of a path within reach for a college student like myself looking to make a difference.
Here are 6 helpful tips I gathered from our conversations:
Take advantage of organized programs to start volunteering.
Ido Benvenisti, currently Program Coordinator at the Glocal MA Program in Community Development Studies, started off serving as a JDC Entwine JSC fellow in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in 2010. His inspiration was instant; he heard about the Israeli-run youth village in Rwanda one night, and he “felt like [I] wanted to be a part of it right away.”
Tania Charabati, now Director General of CADENA Mexico, also got started in a structured setting: university. ”Through a class and some teachers, I worked for 6 months with criminal teenagers, and then 6 months in the psychiatric area of a Mexican jail. [I] and a group of colleagues started trying art therapy with mentally ill inmates.”
Both of them utilized existing programs to get involved with social justice, but that definitely isn’t the only way to get involved…
Apply your existing talents or passions to social justice settings.
Genna Brand, who now works as Director of Communications for Innovation:Africa, started off as a soccer player who had no direct intentions of doing social justice work. She played Division I in college as well as professionally, and along the way, she “traveled the world and saw soccer transform people and communities to have a better understanding of people regardless of their gender, religion or nationality.” Eventually, Genna made aliya [moved to Israel] and pursued her career as a professional soccer player. While here, she volunteered with The Peres Center for Peace in their Twinned Peace Soccer Program. That was how her soccer skills led her into the world of social justice.
Natalie Silverlieb, currently Global Program Specialist for Global Immersive Experiences at JDC Entwine and pursuing a Masters in Community Development Studies through Glocal, was very involved in performing arts growing up. Soon, she realized she could use her talents to help people. “As an actress, I developed a sense of empathy that came from identifying with many different characters,” she explains. “I realized that I could utilize my past profession and apply it… to help people connect and empathize with each other.”
Inspiration can be anywhere, even in everyday experiences like media and art.
Some changemakers don’t follow a set program or plan; they harness moments of insight and develop those into a driving passion. When Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara, was 19, she watched the movie Slumdog Millionaire. She says that she was “horrified to see that level of human suffering and poverty. I’m a spontaneous person so I booked a trip to India right after and started asking everyone I knew if they had any opportunities for me to volunteer there.” Erin’s action after this random spur of inspiration and empathy paid off: “Eventually I got connected to this orphanage, so when I was 19 I went to India for 4 months to live and work in a girls’ orphanage in Mumbai.”
Look for intersections between your core values.
Natalie talks about how she searched to combine her ideals when she was seeking her next steps professionally: “In the beginning, when I wasn’t sure what to do, I was just an actress looking to identify with Jewish values, which for me is tikkun olam. ”
Ido relates how Judaism and his sense of social justice strongly complement each other. Very early on, he realized that “seeing social justice from a Jewish perspective, as a moral imperative, is very central.” Ido feels that the site where he initially volunteered, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, “is the perfect combination of Jewish values, Israeli expertise, and creating a sustainable approach to solving a problem. Israel can be a hub for international development.” He adds, “That to me is a part of being a Zionist.”
Paths toward making an impact are rarely linear, but every step holds valuable lessons.
It can sometimes take a while until your past experiences, activities and connections come together to form a big picture of how you can impact others.
Natalie explains how the pieces of her varied career came together and led to a job she loves now: “I came to realize that it’s not easy or direct or quick. I tried out a lot of different things. I had a very eclectic career… I got further experience with kids, environmental opportunities. All of these experiences led me to where I am today.”
Tania learned about the value of connections through her work in the prison, which has greatly benefited her disaster relief efforts now. In her work with prisoners, she connected many different people and efforts to create a larger network that benefited all:
“We started giving art therapy to the kids, but using the Origami figures made by the inmates… we started giving away these figures in the university, with a message that said ‘this [flower] is made by mentally ill inmates, painted by kids who live in the street, asking you for equality, non violence, and basic human rights. Please donate…’”
“This taught me,” says Tania, “that links are the most important. If we gather efforts instead of competing, everything flows better. Allying, working together… It makes everything easier so that nothing is impossible.”
It will be hard, but it will be worth it!
Despite the challenges of their work, all of those I interviewed also spoke of the profound rewards of a career in service.
Erin says of that initial trip to India: “It taught me that I’m happiest when I feel connected to others.”
Genna shares that her experiences in the field have “given me a sense of what I can bring to the world, even to just one person… We each have something so rare and unique to offer those less fortunate than us. It’s all about people helping people, giving people a sense of hope, self-esteem and the reality of a brighter future, a future they deserve.”
Lilly Scherban interned at OLAM during the spring of 2016 and is a first-year student at Harvard University.