Throwing the Book at Poverty

by Jonathan C. Lewis

Economic and social justice work is the most selfish thing I do. Fighting the good fight is utterly satisfying, undeniably gratifying, unbounded fun. I’m a happier person because I’m a social entrepreneur.

Social entrepreneurs are, for the most part, cheerfully confident. We have a calming strength which comes with understanding our life purpose. We tend to be empowered, empowering and powerful in our professional lives. We strut a subversive swagger.

Social change work is about empathetic connection, trust and respect. Try as we might to abstract and conceptualize the fight for social, environmental and economic justice, the work takes place in the daily lives of real people. That’s the point of it.

For social entrepreneurs like me, the very notion of professional detachment is – even if intellectually appealing – anathema viscerally. Social change work is like a primal scream in protest against the sins we inherit. It’s personal for me.

Beyond the intelligent use of our minds and beyond the compassionate caring of our hearts, social entrepreneurs are ardent, fiery, zealous, passionate, hot-blooded advocates for justice. The animating vision of a social entrepreneur is less about a particular cause and more about a deeply felt compulsion to stand up against injustice.

I can’t give you a precise definition for social justice any more than I can give you a precise definition for freedom of speech or human dignity or, for that matter, describe the perfect romance. I can only share what it feels like. Social change work is challenging, confirming, comforting, completing.

Social justice work burns like a passionate love affair. It focuses life. It consumes. It motivates. Like any important relationship, social justice work makes me a better person.

You and I are called to the big challenges of our time. Unquestionably, we each are privileged to answer the call differently, but we are called.

At some point – actually at many points in our careers – we each wonder if we fit in, if we are doing enough, if we are worthy, if we belong. No matter how small or insignificant you might feel on any given day, even if you are just getting your career underway, even if a hurtful word has set you back, your unique life perspective means you have a unique contribution to make. About this, I’m not bullshitting you.

Bringing poverty and income inequality, and the lack of economic opportunity, to a crashing conclusion is the taproot of my life. Now, I want to talk with you about a few conundrums and challenges, contentments and cheery things, about social entrepreneurship, social change and social justice work.

Because social entrepreneurship is not called solo entrepreneurship, I’m writing a book (working title: What I Don’t Know About Social Entrepreneurship) and sharing rough draft excerpts in my periodic e-newsletter. Please join the conversation at www.Café and tell me what you think.

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I think it’s worth knowing that social entrepreneurship is joyous, fulfilling and happy-making. It’s as much fun as I have in public. What about you?

I also think it’s worth knowing that social entrepreneurship is exacting, tough, tiring work. It is not for the faint- or fickle-hearted. Social entrepreneurship demands the best from us. You might not be good enough now, but you will be. I believe that.

It’s worth knowing that social entrepreneurship is a club of conscience. Membership means – not only do we think good thoughts – but we also take a spirited stab at turning a few of those good thoughts into good deeds. There are no armchair social entrepreneurs.

It’s also worth knowing that social entrepreneurs get discouraged and frustrated. Our battles are with the interconnected isms: racism, sexism, ageism, classism, eco-terrorism. It can be really tough figuring out where to start and what to do. When you decide not to give up, you’re a social entrepreneur.

It’s worth knowing that there are many pathways to actualizing your social entrepreneurial career. Not everyone is suited to start or invent their own social enterprise. In fact, what the social sector needs most is the myriad of middle and senior managers, coming from all walks of life, that will turn lofty ideas into practical reality.

It’s worth knowing that social entrepreneurship is anchored and inspired by the great social justice movements of history. In classrooms and at conferences, social entrepreneurship takes on the aura of a profession, or toolkit, or methodology, or industry, or asset class. It’s all that, of course, but we are called to it for subterranean reasons that mark who you and I are as individuals, as global citizens.

It’s worth knowing that your cause will find you. At the start of our social justice careers, it’s common for people to define themselves as searching for their life’s passion, but that’s an ass backwards paradigm. More likely, your cause will find you. Part serendipity, part accessibility, part opportunity.

And, I think it’s worth knowing that social activists take sides. Sometimes we make enemies. My social entrepreneurship name tag tells defenders of the status quo: I do not accept your desecration of the environment, your denial of economic opportunity and your scant regard for people who do not share your class, race, religion or nationality. I especially reject your shameful indifference towards the suffering of others.

Take sides. Get started. Stay involved. Don’t quit. The pluck and spine of a social justice career is showing up (or, in my case, writing a book).

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J LewisJonathan C. Lewis, 67, is an accomplished social entrepreneur. He is the Founder/Board Chair of MCE Social Capital, Founder/President of the Opportunity Collaboration, Founder/Host of Café Impact and Co-Founder of Copia Global. He teaches Making Social Entrepreneurship Happen at New York University and is a recipient of the Social Venture Network Innovation Award.

One Response to “Throwing the Book at Poverty

  • YES! YES! YES! Spot on, Jonathan Lewis, and gorgeously articulated. Thrilled to be alongside you in the quest for a better world.

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