Often when thinking about a career we separate our activism from our professional aspirations. Movements and causes that we feel strongly about we relegate to working on during our “off” hours: weekends, evenings, and holidays. These efforts are not our day jobs. This is an artificial distinction. We only have to look at those who have dedicated their lives to social justice causes and global positive change to see that their work was their full-time job, and not just a weekend diversion.
Taking steps to advance a career involves considering myriad factors. Some are grounded in financial necessity: I need to get a job that pays my rent, or my student loans! Or sometimes we feel the direction we take must align with the educational investment we have already made. We ask ourselves: if I’ve spent all this time, effort, and money to get a degree in “X” then I really should make that my career, right? These are reasonable considerations. But often they might act as blinders on a horse: only allowing us to see that is in front of us, and not allowing for a wider view of how we can contribute to the social good through a meaningful career.
We are in a time like no other. How people of color in the U.S. and worldwide are treated and marginalized must be addressed. Protests, statue removals, and the questioning of the status quo (including the traditional role of policing) is taking place daily. Many of us now recognize that our “good future” or “luck” is in actuality the result of systemic advantages that we have been given and others denied. It also relates to crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. Life as we know it has been turned on its head. The “new” normal has yet to be revealed.
A Fulbright grant is often motivated by the altruistic desire to do good: be that to advance cultural understanding, promote the arts to improve community life, foster scientific research to better global health, or build peace through education. I have found with rare exception that those returning from a Fulbright experience have developed increased awareness of the advantages that Americans have. And if their Fulbright experience has taken place in a non-Western society, they recognize that there are many more “have nots” than “haves” in the world. And they recognize that working to improve conditions doesn’t end with the completion of a Fulbright experience.
Can the convergence of passion for change and the current political and public health conditions lead to a career strategy redirection? Can we pull off the blinders and consider careers that directly address some of the challenges we face? If you had not thought about a career in public health, is the current COVID-19 crisis offering you a chance to see how you might move in that direction? Could the current unrest and protests direct your interest to education in social justice? How might you start this exploration?
Check Your Own Community First
It seems that the “big problems” facing the world draw our attention. But I would suggest that the issues that we might work on – public health or social justice- are also local. Start at home. The question then becomes: what work in my community needs attention?
Make Changes in Your Current Work
Of course there are some jobs that are designed directly to make change. But I would argue that most anyone can find space regardless of their work to advance important social goals. A retail professional can urge their employer to offer products that align with environmental values. An accountant can devote volunteer time to support the needs of a not-for-profit. An IT professional can offer their expertise gratis to social justice groups trying to advance justice reform. Find space in your current work to improve social conditions.
Transition from Volunteer to Paid Staff
Those organizing a rally or protest often come together spontaneously. They are usually volunteers. As the effort grows, there might be the need to sustain the effort with staff who are paid. This will require getting financial support through donations, fundraising, or grants. Once funding is obtained, then professional staff can be hired. As a volunteer, your efforts might lead to paid employment continuing to the do the work you are passionate about.
Research, Reach Out, and Plan
If you come to the conclusion that your goal is a career that allows you to apply your convictions, you will need to spend time researching and planning. Not all social causes easily allow for paid work, but many do. You need to consider which ones can support a career. Fields such as human rights, humanitarian assistance, international development, legal advocacy, and policy change present clearer pathways to a career. Often through additional education or training, you can prepare yourself and learn the steps you should take. Having a game plan is important: making connections, training or education, and volunteer experience will likely be part of it.
The passion you brought to your Fulbright experience can be redirected now to other important social issues that communities face. Many can benefit from what you bring to a cause.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at email@example.com.