4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Graduation About Working For Social Change
By Eli Schmitt
When I graduated from college and moved to New York City, I learned a lot about social justice movements, and how young people do or don’t fit into them. Some of what I learned was told to me by other people, some of it I noticed watching myself and my peers, and most of it I wished I had known sooner. I am writing this to you, social-change-oriented college graduates, college graduates to be, or just any young people living in capitalism, in the hopes that it might help you feel better and do more effective work sooner.
1. College and Meritocracy
Disclaimer: I am about to say a bunch of critical things about higher education; there are also very good things about college.
When I think of “capitalism,” I think of the system that sorts who ultimately gets money and who doesn’t. Capitalist sorting happens under the pretense of fairness (people call the pretense of fairness “meritocracy”) but it’s a false pretense. College is part of this system, because it does the preliminary job of sorting people into categories of who deserves to get money and who doesn’t. At least in theory, people who go to college can get jobs that pay more money than people who don’t. This is what I take people to mean when they talk about going to a “good” college– you yourself must be good, meaning, you deserve to be paid more for your job, you deserve to be thought of as intelligent and competent, you are just good in general. The corresponding idea is that if someone went to a less-good college, they would deserve less money, because they were less valuable. This could be one definition of the word “classist.”
College upholds the myth of meritocracy starting with the admissions process. In America, if you went to private high school and/or your family has class privilege, there’s a good chance that you were being “prepared” for the college admissions process from when you were a young teenager, or even before. You might have had books about college, a college counselor, or family members who went to different colleges and could tell you about it. Some people get expensive test prep courses, tutors, and coaching about how they appear on paper. But even as privileged teens get the upper hand in the unfair system, they are being told that they are fairly competing. Once you are accepted to or rejected from different colleges, you’ve been valued (or devalued) in the supposedly fair system.
Then, two, or three, or four, or five (or however many) years later, you graduate, or leave, and people ask you what’s going to happen next. When I was graduating from college, I found it really annoying to be asked about my career all the time, especially when I wasn’t sure what my career was going to be. Part of the reason it annoyed me was because I felt like there was a right and wrong answer, a valuation of career or achievement-based choices that I was being reminded of.
I think it also really sucks if you have huge goals (like ending oppression) or deep values (like that all human beings are intrinsically valuable, no matter what) and then someone’s weird parent at a graduation function is like “so what are you going to do with that art history degree?” and laughs at you. I think it sucks because the message they’re sending you is “whatever your goals and values are, I only care if you’re doing a prestigious job, or working a job that I’ve heard of, or making money, or aspiring to make money.” And I think that’s a rotten message.
2. What College Trains You For
But unless you went here instead of college, it’s unlikely that you were intensively trained in social change work as an undergraduate. If your college had a “Mobilizing and Sustaining Massive Movements for Systemic Change” major, please, please let me know. Otherwise, you probably had to study history or sociology or comparative literature or something. Or math.
The ritual of choosing a major or an area of study, and choosing this as your identity (“So, what’s your major?”), like choosing a college, masks historical and systemic forces that are preventing change. You couldn’t major in “Practically Dismantling Capitalism” because your college’s board of trustees does not want you to dismantle capitalism. They do want you to feel like you are a better, more nourished, or more valuable person because you have arcane class-coded knowledge. Then they want you to try and maintain that class-contextual value by trying to make money, and then they want you to give that money to them.
Academia is set up in part to buffer theories of change from actual change. If it wasn’t, there would be no myth of meritocracy, plus no such thing as legacy admissions, honors majors, secret societies, or even admissions offices. But even just academic study itself is suspect: a few years ago, when I was graduating, I had lunch with one of my beloved comp. lit professors. I asked him what he thought about being an academic. He said, “Eli, you can tell that reading Foucault is not actually subversive because no one in power cares if you read it.” I don’t think he was saying that we shouldn’t read Foucault or other authors who write theories about power and oppression — he was saying that if I wanted to make change, I shouldn’t look to academia. Because the theories on their own, in a context of individualism, competition, and class-based inequality (i.e. college) do nothing.
3. “The Real World”
So, if you are graduating from college, you are probably getting pressured to show that you are a valuable person by having a job and making money. Graduating from college can be tough because the experience of living on a college campus can hide inequality. Your friends may not have known about your debt and vice versa. You may not have known that your friends parents’ were willing to pay their rent and vice versa. Some people don’t leave home when attending college, and some people return home after.
Not everyone gets to choose what bothers them. If you are suffering because you’re disempowered — in larger systems, or in the context of your life — if you are inundated and overwhelmed, you know best what you need. For a lot of people with systemic advantages though, to some extent you do get to pick what bothers you. And I think the nexus of college, career, and capitalism, especially in the intense transition from college to post-college life, conspires to make you pick bullshit as the thing that bothers you, instead of real problems.
What do I mean by bullshit? When I moved to New York City (not my home) in 2011, I noticed me and my friends getting stressed about weird stuff, like whether each others’ internships were prestigious, or whether our apartments were in “cool” neighborhoods. Not everyone has this experience, but I saw a lot of people come from the masked inequality of undergraduate life to the blatant inequality of the city, and become preoccupied about doing status maintenance and class maintenance. (There is also a reverse version of this effect among young activists, of shaming people who act “too rich,” or who are “too privileged,” and I think this can also individualize systemic problems).
In New York, a lot of what the class maintenance looked like was people trying to be “interesting” or “well-read” or “smart”— categories that you know are fake because they are assessed based on arbitrary things (like your outfit, or if you knew about a given party or function). This anxiety kicked in even for people who really cared about social justice and anti-capitalism. This is another version of getting arbitrarily valued based on where you went to college, or what kind of job you have.
Additionally, for people who have a systemic advantage (like family money), there’s often a value placed around being independent — not interdependent — and “making it” on your own. This connects to values around having your own possessions, home space, and financial cushion. Interdependence, a sense that there is no value in personal success if it happens in the context of communal crisis, is absent in the narration of post-college life as a time when you prove your value in the world by getting a job, making money (and using class-coded knowledge to seem “interesting” at parties).
This is why there are TV shows about 20-somethings feeling insecure about their jobs, sex lives and apartments and outfits, but there are not TV shows about 20-somethings forming intergenerational, interracial, cross-class coalitions to keep themselves nourished while undermining the systems that arbitrarily value some people and devalue others.
Maybe you are not moving to a strange city when you graduate from college. Maybe you are moving back in with your parents, or with some other member of your family. Statistically, it is more likely that you are doing this than it was that your older siblings did this. We are a generation that is likely to move in with our parents in our 20s. I keep seeing articles about this trend framing it as a failure. The mainstream idea is that young people are supposed to go make money and be successful individuals (i.e. consumers).
If you are moving in with your parents, whether it is by choice, or because of financial constraints, or their health, or whatever reason, it’s possible that what you’re doing is potentially countercultural. I think that cultural norms in America around independence — specifically for white middle-class people — are deterrents to forming intergenerational community, building non-nuclear families, and creating effective political coalitions. And if you don’t feel these norms apply to you, and/or if you’re just feeling bad about moving back home after graduating, remember that it doesn’t have to be forever.
4. Activism As A Way of Life
Capitalism devalues people — even people with systemic power. What I mean by this is that even rich white guys (like my friends’ bosses at fancy companies here in NYC) feel bad about their bodies and worry about not being rich enough. If you become one of their interns (which I hope you don’t) you can hear them talk on the phone about their bad feelings with their personal trainer or financial analyst (true story).
This is not to say that rich white guys are equally devalued in capitalism as people without systemic power, or even that we should be especially worried about them. Just that their lives suck too. So if you’re thinking you might try make a lot of money to escape what sucks about living in capitalism, I will say that the insanely rich people — even the hot/“interesting” ones — I’ve met since I graduated college aren’t doing that well (this observation is also backed up by research).
If you went to college, someone has probably tried to value or devalue you based on where you went to school. This is also true for your job-search, job prospects, and then, if you’re fortunate, job. One of my friends talks about the distinction between your intrinsic human value (which everyone has, and is immutable) and your contextual value, which is, like, if you’re good at sports, or know how to do data analysis, or know a lot of people in a certain activist circles. Your contextual value changes based on what happens to you and based on context.
College, capitalism, and the myth of meritocracy tend to overweight peoples’ contextual value and disregard their inherent value. So valuing yourself and others, and not confusing your inherent and contextual value, is actually one powerful and covert way to stick it to the system. This can be tough if you’re applying to lots of jobs and not getting them. It can also be tough if everyone you meet is asking you about your career, implying that it’s the most important thing about you. It’s not.
Radical values, especially at an emotional and interpersonal level, don’t always make sense in intensely capitalist contexts. If you hold radical beliefs and commit to living in broader culture, it can be a real pain in the ass. If you work at an ad firm, but you want everyone to love themselves and their bodies and be in strong, vital communities, you’re not the crazy one.
I think one way capitalism convinces radical young people to have more conservative adult lives is by pushing them to rationalize away the dissonance between their radical beliefs and their conservative surroundings. In order for your beliefs to survive, it’s important to resist this. My advice: stay with your discomfort, acknowledge the complexity, be compassionate with yourself, and make space to process the dissonance, rather than rationalize your way out of it.
What does this look like?
Example of rationalizing: “Because no one really cares about feminism, I can’t change anything, either in myself, my community, or my workplace. One person can’t effect systemic change anyways.”
Example of not rationalizing: “I have these strong feminist beliefs but it’s really hard to find an outlet for them or any support around them, and I’m beginning to notice that I doubt my own commitment to them. It feels bad. I’m going to try and figure out what I would need to maintain these beliefs in what is turning out to be a hostile culture.”
Promise yourself that you will try to figure it out. This another form of self care. Part of the project might also involve transforming relationships with people who only value you based on your career and achievements.
You may be picking up on a contradiction! You might say “if it’s important to make change, how can you also tell me that my career is not an important thing about me?” To which I say, what we choose to do in our lives is important. Being conventionally successful is not mutually exclusive with movement work, but they’re definitely not the same. Most people I’ve met in the last few years who are drawn to prestige and external validation through professional success also struggle to be good activists. They want people to affirm their contextual value. They want to be the best, or the coolest, or the most cutting edge. They aren’t necessarily working on personal, interpersonal, community-level, or systemic change. I think it’s easy to understate how damaging these needs for arbitrary, professionalized, or class-based validation can be for people’s movement work.
What else can you do? Things we already said are important are to a.) value yourself and b.) avoid rationalizing. But what else should college graduates do, if they want to change the world?
• Think about your underlying needs. One of the ways that consumer capitalism most aggressively messes with you is by telling you that you can meet underlying needs by focusing on your consumer identity (including your career). It’s almost never true. If your desire is to feel like you’re doing meaningful work, getting the “right” internship might not actually help. If the underlying need is to feel interconnection to a larger community and a sense of meaning in everyday choices, going to the right parties is probably not the thing. Figure out what your deep, underlying needs are. Then meet them in ways that align with your values, rather than in ways that compromise them.
• Find mentors and other activists. College and capitalism push you to individualize your life, choices, achievements. But social change work is not something that individuals do alone, it’s something that coalesces around the work of coalitions, made up of many groups and individuals, leveraging different positions and capabilities. You can’t do the work alone. When I first got to New York, I spent months just going to different meetings, trying to find other activists, and then trying to find other activists who I liked, with whom I had stuff in common, whose process I wanted to join. It took a long time — and I’m not done. Look around, give yourself time, bark up different trees!
• Think about your role. When you’re at college, having your identity reduced to your major and your job prospects after, you may not have had time to look deeply at what kind of work you find deeply nourishing. The movement needs all kinds of people, from introverts and analytical folks and number crunchers to gregarious talkers, emotional folks, and networkers. You can do all kinds of activist work in your life, and it can change! But having a guess about what energizes you in your work will help you, and will help groups that you join. This process of discovery is fun because the questions include “Who are you?” “What do you love?” “What inspires you?” and “What do you want the story of your life to be?”
Then you can write the story of your life, and it can be a story that includes many other activists who grow and change with you, and grow the work, and make the community, and then the world, better.
an earlier version of this piece was written in collaboration with @PippiKessler