Not long after graduate school, I traveled from sunny California to Washington, DC and got a job with an organization that did advocacy around a whole range of social justice issues.  It was perfect: full of passion and drive, I got to work with people who had a mission and were making a real difference in the world.  One humid summer afternoon, as we gathered materials for a protest, one of my coworkers picked up a pin that had War Is Not the Answer emblazoned on it in red, white and blue.  He laughed: they’d been saying that since Vietnam.  Well, at least they could recycle the pins.

This week students will graduate from universities all over the country and enter what we call the real world.  They will flock to Washington and Los Angeles and New York and take jobs and internships and work long hours for pennies at least in part because they want to make the world a better place.

And unless I’m wrong, they will find it exhilarating, just like I did.  What an extraordinary thing it is to work for a cause you believe in, to be so close to power, and to know that, though there are awful things going on in the world, there are things we can do to change them.

This is part of the reality graduates face: that together we can change the world.  The other part, which begins to surface several months into your first job, is that, often, we can’t.   There are significant limits to what we can do.

This reality hit me hard.  As a student, I had studied the Middle East; the injustices and ravages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made me righteous with anger, and though it was decades old, I was certain that doing something now was possible.  So I did what many do: I went to rallies and forums, I signed petitions and read books and had exhausting conversations in coffee shops.  I was part of the collective effort to impel our government to do more to contribute to a just solution.  And as a result of our efforts the conflict continued.  Now, I hadn’t really expected it to end, but I was hugely demoralized at how little our efforts accomplished.

Every young person will eventually face this: the colossal disappointment of ineffectiveness.  It happens all the time.  We demand that our leaders intervene in Darfur, but they have not intervened, at least not the extent that we need them to. We urge them to address global warming, but they equivocate and delay.

Where do we go from here?  The answer is certainly not resignation.  Time is the most precious thing we have–because it is the most irrevocable–and it should not be wasted doing nothing.  But how will the next generation shape this perplexing, messy world?

We can start by changing the way we think about change.  While we work for grand, front-page, trumpets blaring causes, change is usually incremental and subversive, the stuff of back-page news. Rich countries agree to purchase vaccines for pneumococcal disease, which will save millions of lives in the developing world.  Israeli settlers agree to transfer Gaza Strip greenhouses to the Palestinian Authority, preserving 2,700 Palestinian jobs. Change does happen and there is much to be glad about.  And you don’t have to sacrifice big dreams to think so.  The key is to chip away, everyday, at injustice and hunger and war and homelessness, and to celebrate small victories without ever becoming entirely satisfied. After all, it is our own future that is at stake.

We can also tell the truth.  It’s easy to spout partial truths like that genocide is bad and we must do something because it is right. But the whole truth must ask why our country intervenes in some places and not in others.  The whole truth acknowledges that sometimes our solutions to particular problems have negative effects on other problems.  And since so much of what we do has a fundamentally moral basis, the whole truth acknowledges that though we may believe there are moral costs of inaction, sometimes there is no obvious political cost.

This next crop of grads should reject clichés, acknowledge the legitimacy of doubt, and speak to the ambiguous heart of things.  If we don’t our causes risk becoming sentimental, fragile and irrelevant.

Submitted by Lindsay Morgan, Center for Global Development

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