Two weeks ago I walked into a building that opened my mind to the jacob’s ladder of possibilities that could be my future career. Page-like stairs unfurling before our group of 18 Leaders for Social change, we spent an hour flipping through the art of printing press pages, human-sized paper cuttings sliced with intricate delicacy, and origami made from books. This was only the beginning–a gallery-style lobby stacked at the bottom of three floors of inspiration, creativity, and personified ideas.
Open Book, located in downtown St. Paul MN, is a non-profit warehouse of bookmaking, ancient recycled hardwood floors, writing classes for all ages and interests, coffee, art, and community. In its upper levels, you’ll find conference rooms with a view, spartan writing rooms with 24 hour access to budding authors, and a non-profit environmentally focused publisher called Milkweed Editions. This publishing company, which struck me immediately as the publisher of my favorite professor (and close friend) Jim Farrell’s recent book The Nature of College, strives to “identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it.” One of their most notable accomplishments came this summer when My Green Manifesto made it onto President Obama’s vacation book list and into a photograph where its verdant cover was nestled in the crook of that powerful man’s arm.
In our day spent touring the beautiful labyrinth of Open Book, we were challenged to question what it means to be a “Leader for Social Change”– playing with variations on the theme of “significance” and “a meaningful life.”
As that indescribable scent of freshly printed pages juxtaposed with ancient yellowed texts mingled in my nostrils, we tackled abstract questions from a rectangular space that overlooked the Twin Cities skyline.
We talked about theologians and African doctors and education and the safety nets that are so often found behind those who “make change.” Our conversation was a tennis match of forehead-wrinkling banter–accompanied by a few tense pauses and a batch of delicious cookies baked by one of our doting supervisors.
We played our intellectual game. What if we don’t have the privilege that is typically paired with those who enter the “good” work of the Peace Corps? Can a stay at home father who gives his wife the possibility of becoming a world-changing activist by attending to the daily needs of their family be seen as just as much (if not more) of a leader for social change than she? How do we define “social change” anyway? What about decidedly negative social change? We can’t dismiss the fact that Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who founded McDonalds, was also a leader for social change (though he may not have known it when he bought his first restaurant and developed an economic formula that would change the face of American consumption.)
We argued about the ethics of activism–about the significance of making a leap when you don’t have far to fall. We wondered if social change requires you to give everything (or at least something) up. I wondered how my own story would unfold.
Just as we started to cross that fine line between engaged discussion and the lung-tightening feeling that comes with looking too hard at the “big” picture, a panel of four smiling St. Olaf and Leaders for Social Change alumni took seats at the head of our circle of tables. Each of them talked about the transition from a Hill of all-nighters in the library, the doting encouragement of passionate professors, limestone buildings and a Harry Potter-like cafeteria. They were equal parts terrified and driven to make a “difference.”
Their advice was diverse. It left me with a very ink stained left hand–I needed to get it all down and unwrap it later on. We were told that we would be unspeakably lonely for at least some time after graduation. That the romantic idealism of social change can only take you so far. We were reminded to determine what gives us energy, and to do that. The St. Olaf expectation that you’ll know what you want to do by the time you graduate was acknowledged and disproved. We need to stay open and network and connect and search for “epiphanies” and “ah-has.”
These four women, all in their 20s, white, and telling stories of multiple non-profit jobs, taught us how to “sell” our liberal arts education. They taught us the art of “spinning” major titles during interviews, studying potential future co-workers for what they could teach you, the delicate balance of modesty and pride, and pushing the boundaries of your job description.
They all seemed familiar with the sense of guilt that has plagued me in these past few weeks. A few of my housemates commented that they were too similar and un-diverse, but for me, they were a glimpse into then next tumultuous five years of my life. I wanted to learn from their mistakes–to add their perspective to my ever-changing definition of “success.” I wanted to learn (like they had,) to forgive myself.
As my muscles twitched with a fidgety sense of anticipation, the women continued to tell their stories–a 9th grade student who didn’t know “and” from “in,” a season of failure at an organic farm, buying into the “corporate” world and realizing that understanding it was the best way to “fix” it… the list stretched on and on. I began to deconstruct where I want to fit into all of it.
While everyone else listened with a quiet intentionality, I made a list of “aliveness”–the things I think I need to develop internal motivation and fulfillment. I recognized that in order to help anyone else, I need to know myself. I’ve been told again and again how cliche this idea is, but I believe it anyway. I think that for the rest of my life I’ll be discovering “who I am.” In any sort of activism or social change there is an underlying selfishness. It’s better to acknowledge this than to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Aliveness: (Where I Get My Energy)
- Small group conversations
- Thinking and Talking with Hands
- Writing/Having Written/ Being Read
- Systems Thinking (particularly when it comes to education)
- Thinking about Memory
- Studying and Understanding Justice
- Presenting to a Small Group Interactively
- Sharing Ideas in “Think Tank” sessions (like this one)
- Being “heard”
- Working with Kids
- Reflection–Realizing how my past has shaped me
- Social Sustainability
As we filed through the community spaces, art galleries, patios, and warehouse corridors of Open Book, The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Editions, and Minnesota Center for Book Arts, I felt that increasingly familiar tug. I could see myself as part of this place where the goal is to “support, teach, and celebrate the idea and art of the book. [To] explore the artistic assembly of the pages, covers, and spine, imagine the ideas and characters that create the story.”
I realized that to make a “difference,” I don’t necessarily need to take the political world by storm. I could be an elementary teacher who influenced systems thinking in the students of her district, or an editor or organizer at a place where innovation goes to bloom–like Open Book. I could also be a catalyst for social change–writing and speaking in ways that get other people to act on a scale I cannot reach alone.
A week later, I was still talking about that building and the thoughts it spurred. There is something significant there. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I’ll get there. In five years, I’ll have my own up and down seasick story of triumph to tell. For now, I have no idea what the tunnel I’m about to enter holds–or what’s on the other side.