“Don’t be afraid to do it your own way.”
This was the message media mogul and honoree Mike Muse imparted to last week’s North Star Fund Community Gala audience. I want to say that it was an audience full of activists, but using that word requires some explanation first.
North Star Fund
The 36-year-old foundation’s primary work connects progressive donors with grassroots activists in New York City. At the heart of its mission, it helps “leaders on the ground organize, stand up for themselves, and pursue solutions to the greatest problems facing our city.” Rather than adding to the city’s busy ecosystem of nonprofits, NSF gets much needed resources into the hands of grassroots leaders who understand the issues facing their communities better than anyone.
At the organization’s annual gala, many of those leaders shared stories of the work they had done with the help of NSF grants. Honoree Julissa Reynoso, who’s career feats include serving as the US Ambassador to Uruguay, was herself once the recipient of an NSF grant while working with an immigrant community in upper Manhattan. “I couldn’t believe there were funders who believed in [us],” Reynoso recalled.
A younger activist, who had advocated to expand the city’s free middle school lunch program without stigmatizing income requirements, shared the impact of the program in an emotional speech. It meant less bullying. It meant more kids actually eating because they weren’t getting bullied. And, she added, they aren’t going to stop until every student has access to free lunch. She drove home the event’s thesis: the work of these grassroots activists couldn’t be more personal and meaningful.
So what does activism look like?
So many of us seek work that is personal and meaningful, yet activism isn’t always the first place we look. As Mike Muse remarked while sharing his own professional journey, “It wasn’t a word I was actually comfortable with.”
But why is it so uncomfortable? On the one hand, there’s the “activist” stereotype of a one-dimensional crusader disconnected from any viewpoint other than their own. On the other hand, the term can seem like an unattainable label, one we might feel unable to qualify for.
The truth is any one of us can be activists in our own way. Here’s what it actually requires: the conviction to believe in something and the bravery to stand up for that belief no matter the circumstances.
Being an activist will look different for each of us. Just looking around the room at the North Star Fund Gala, I noticed at least four kinds of activists—not mutually exclusive—who were each necessary and complimentary. Which one(s) could you be?
These are the community leaders. They’ve identified problems because they themselves are affected—or they’ve seen the effects up close and personal. They understand the impact a solution could have, and it drives them to fight for it. They’ll be the ones to start community dialogues, build coalitions, create nonprofits, become local politicians and much more.
Could it be you? Think about your life and your communities. Are there problems affecting you that probably affect others like you? Are there barriers that have held you back? Think about what kind of solutions could address this problem, and how you could help make those solutions happen.
These are the people who enable NSF to support grassroots activism. They come from all kinds backgrounds and from every industry. Ultimately, they want their resources to stretch beyond their own lives so they support to meaningful change by supporting those who will drive change.
Could it be you? Are you in a position of privilege, either through earned or inherited wealth? Are you connected to others who could give back? Get informed about the kind of organizations, causes and communities you could support.
These are the people who form organizations like NSF and enable change for a living. There are thousands of organizations and businesses that enable change out there, ranging from nonprofits like DoSomething.org to socially-minded companies like Warby Parker. These organizations need talented, energized people to lead the helm.
Could it be you? Are you seeking to apply your talents to a mission-driven organization? Remember to prioritize this when you research professional opportunities.
These are people like Mike Muse. They’ve found their calling, as Muse did in the music industry. But as he rose to the top, he realized his success didn’t exist in isolation. He sat in rooms with powerful movers and shakers, but he couldn’t forget about the community he came from. “How dare I sit in this room and not raise my hand?… and how dare I not go back to my community and teach what I’ve learned?” So he let his passion for politics, equality and Black and Brown youth blend in to his growing media career.
Could it be you? As you progress in your own career, do you want to give back and blend your beliefs into your chosen work? Remember to apply your convictions to your career. If you build partnerships, find partners you respect. If you have hiring power, hire inclusively and according to your principles. If you have influence, use your platform to advocate for what you believe in.
Just don’t be afraid to do it in your own way.