Taproot invited writer, teacher, and speaker Courtney E. Martin, author of the newly-released book Do It Anyway, to speak with us on the impact of the Millennial generation’s contribution to social change. As Aaron, Taproot’s president and CEO, pointed out, it is this cohort (born between 1980 and 2001), which is just now beginning to mature in their professional careers, that will carry on the pro bono ethic across multiple business sectors.
“The change needed to engage this generation is not one that will happen because we target this audience. We need to infuse it into our DNA and how we work. We must meet them where they are and not try to bring them to us,” Aaron told us.
In her book, Courtney painstakingly profiles eight young activists who have found ways to use their unique personal strengths to effect social change. The final portraits are honest and complex, a reflection of the contradictions and circumstances with which many young people struggle as they seek to make a meaningful impact. While our discussion lasted well into the hour, here are a few ideas from Courtney that I found useful in distinguishing and appealing to the Millennial generation.
REDISTRIBUTE THE POWER vs. BE THE POWER
During the early modern wave of activism in the 1960’s, the popular mantra was fight the power. But as idealism gave way to reality for young social change agents of that generation, the prevalent strategy shifted to be the power as baby boomers sought to work from within the system to make a difference. They were successful, too, even reaching the White House. Young people threw their support behind Barack Obama, a candidate they believed in, and won.
But not even that was enough to effect the lasting change that Millennials crave. So Courtney recommended a new slogan for this generation: redistribute the power. This is a generation that is often disillusioned with the system, but also recognizes that government and corporations also play an important role in society and can be used for good. This is the generation that can take pro bono to the next level by using their positions in any sector to be heard and fight for social causes.
YOU CAN SAVE THE WORLD vs. YOU HAVE SOMETHING WORTHWHILE TO GIVE
The Millennial generation has a heavy burden to carry on the unfinished work of its idealistic forerunners. But the payoff is more intrinsic that you might expect. Sure, the Millennials appreciate awards and recognition, but the underlying desire, says Courtney, is knowing they have something of value to contribute. As this generation begins to give back, they want to know that what they’re doing is leaving a legacy. And it is small victories along the way that ultimately are the most meaningful.
Pro bono engagements can fill this role by ensuring their most developed expertise is being put to the best use. Skills-based volunteering ensures that young professionals are being engaged in areas where they are most confident and likely to flourish. Those seeking to harness the enthusiasm and idealism of the Millennial generation would be wise to examine they way they dispense recognition and challenge the new wave of activists in intentional and thoughtful ways.
MARTYR MENTALITY vs. MUTUAL INTEREST
In ages past, fighting for social change meant giving up something. The public sector was kept separate from the private, and if you wanted to have a “real” job while still giving back, the primary mode of philanthropy was throwing money at a problem. The other perceived option went along the lines of quitting your job, living in the woods, attending protests, and chaining yourself to a tree.
But the perceptions are now changing with a third path that respects mutual interests. Now more than ever, work is being coupled with meaning. You can pursue a great career at which you excel and then harness those skills for the public good — also known as pro bono. Courtney’s advice for young job seekers? Find the intersection between your gifts and the world’s needs, then use your strengths in creative ways to bridge those gaps.
RELATABILITY vs. CELEBRITY
A common marketing tactic is using well-known movie stars, music legends and athletes to promote goods and services. Courtney argues, however, that it’s not so much celebrity, but rather relatability, that attracts the Millennials. For her book, Courtney interviewed actress and activist Rosario Dawson. While her story is inspiring, it isn’t her fame that makes her story any more or less exceptional than the other profiles. Courtney said the response has come from a much deeper and intimate place than simply recognizing the name from theater marquees.
As Courtney illustrates in her book, there are plenty of young people out there who desire to make a difference, but sometimes the challenges can be paralyzing. To engage Millennials in social change requires making the effort to understand them. In order to reach them, you must understand their needs and motivations and be prepared to build a relationship beyond the superficial.