January is the month of new beginnings, and for students graduating in May, the start of job hunting season. This graduating class’s senior year has been marked by Occupy events across the country, leading some soon-to-be-graduates to think about careers addressing what many believe to be our most pressing domestic issue: class inequality. Indeed, this inequality is faced most by younger Americans, whose median income is a small fraction of that of “typical American households.”
I recently received an email from a 2011 graduate still looking for a job:
Dear Social Change Collaboratory:
My name is Tom, and I am a 2011 graduate of a good school. I want to work for an organization devoted to working to address economic inequality and other related issues, and I was wondering if you knew any good organizations doing this. I would appreciate all of the help you could give me because I don’t really know where to begin.
Thanks you and best regards,
The Obama generation is charged up to work for change, so where should they work?
Thank you for writing, and congratulations on graduating! Welcome to the thrilling, perplexing world of adulthood.
You ask an excellent question. People have occupied cities and posted yard signs declaring support for the 99%. Many of us who haven’t marched have stood by expressing support for the frustration behind the Occupy movement. Despite all of this fervor, however, the question remains: what are we going to do about this growing divide?
You ask about good organizations focused on this work. In reality, the road to finding a job working to end economic inequality is not necessarily direct—there are many organizations across many sectors doing this work. Four questions to ask yourself before you decide on one.
1. Are you limited to taking the direct path to addressing income inequality?
In the most direct sense, economic inequality can be solved by reducing top incomes, raising bottom incomes, or closing the gap income, all else remaining equal. (Hats off to my undergraduate degree in economics.) Some ideas on careers that take you down this road:
Politics and policy: Work for an elected official concerned about income inequality, or find an advocacy organization that addresses policy.
Small business: Work in a small to mid-size business (or non-profit organization) in a low income area. As Laura Choi notes, finding ways to support local business as they keep their money local helps to reduce income inequality.
Economics: Study economics to better understand the relationship between income and the economy. This is the type of analysis economists do.
2. Quick fix or long term impact?
Limiting one’s scope to income inequality keeps one’s solutions in the realm of transactional change. Taxing the rich (at the modest rates proposed), raising the minimum wage a few cents for the poor, or any other simple transfer of money or monetized benefit doesn’t fundamentally change how society works. (Taxing the rich at high rates or raising the minimum wage significantly would, but that would just be un-American, right?)
Real social change happens once you take the inverse of a societal negative and turn it positive. Indeed, once you get beyond raising or lowering actual incomes, addressing income inequality gets obscured into a range of job descriptions that rarely mention income or inequality. These solutions set out to transform some element of society with the assumption that advocating for new laws, building stronger safety nets, or educating marginalized children and families will expand opportunities, thereby raising the lowest incomes.
Social change: Work for one of the thousands of organizations focused on social justice issues, community development, or political advocacy.
Education: Get school experience through AmeriCorps or through work at an afterschool care program.
3. Local or global?
Income inequality is not just an American problem. Impoverished communities around the world face their own versions of income inequality, both domestically and within the context of external aid being imposed on them by large aid or governmental agencies. We here can do a lot to help people around the world.
Organization support: Non-profit poverty alleviation and social change organizations have staff members to raise money and expand their communities. In Washington State, Global Washington has a directory of them. In other states, contact your local World Affairs Council and ask if they have a directory of internationally-focused organizations working within that region.
Philanthropy: Philanthropists are foundations are paying closer attention to issues of equality in their giving. Grantmakers Without Borders is a leader in taking a social change approach to giving. Its job board includes organizations across the country and worldwide. The Foundation Center’s job board also lists philanthropy-related opportunities.
4. Work or volunteer?
Over the years I have been asked by several mid-career professionals how to break into international non-profit work. After I hear what they are current doing, I get salary envy. You really want to leave a well paid, challenging job to earn close to nothing, to live on soft funding year after year? A lot is accomplished through volunteering and board service. Graduates, ask yourself whether you could achieve your goals by earning a good salary and dedicating your charity dollars and extra hours to community leadership.
Volunteer: Nearly every social service non-profit, food bank, shelter, after-school program, etc. needs volunteer support. Contact your local United Way or any of the organizations linked above to find out ways to jump in today.
Lead: Non-profit organizations rely on volunteer leaders and board members. Take a volunteer experience one step further by become a leader. Great programs work with young people on how to be a effective leader of a social project, Seattle Works being one example.
Innovate: If you can’t find the right match for you, think about creating something new. The Equality Trust, based in the U.K., provides a list of ideas.
Tom, good luck finding the right match for you, and do stay in touch! I can’t wait to hear where you end up.