The Inner Life of Changemakers

Back in my high school and college years, I was like many young people. As I learned about the challenges and inequities throughout the world – the innumerable ways in which the rights, dignity and fundamental well-being of many are violated – I knew I wanted to be involved in creating solutions. I wanted to work for positive change. 

On that quest, I was incredibly fortunate to receive valuable instruction from teachers and professors who guided me in the study of policy work, human rights, different levels of government, the nonprofit sector, education, economics and more. From classes, internships and practicums alike, I began to develop an understanding of how impactful change is made. I studied legendary changemakers and learned to scrutinize the mechanics of their stories to discover how they realized impact.

While this education provided me with critical tools and pointed me down a path, an essential ingredient was missing. Nowhere in my study did I dive into the inner life of changemakers, into their psychological and emotional framework. Their ideas and theories were sometimes the topic of study, but typically removed from the actual act of making change, with studies of the inner realm occurring more often in philosophy and psychology classes than policy courses. 

This form of education placed a clear priority on understanding the act and process of making change – the mechanics, so to speak. Questions like what helped successful changemakers deal with burnout or compassion fatigue, what built their understanding of the systemic nature of change, how they handled feelings of vulnerability and doubt, and how they cultivated hope were left unexplored. 

While this is not always the case, it is true that diving into the inner life of changemakers does not fill the hours spent in high school and college classrooms. Rarer still is an emphasis by those supporting young changemakers on the importance of consciously exploring and cultivating their own inner worlds. I am sure the reasons behind this trend are many – the emotional and psychological world of students isn’t often the subject of high school or even college courses. If students do engage in a quest to know themselves better, it often happens in the school counselor’s office. And when it comes to studying how to make impactful change, it is a lot simpler to head straight for the process and accompanying actions. The nuances of the inner world are more elusive and take more time to explore. Furthermore, such an exploration feels a bit out of place at least in our current model of high school education, with a teacher lecturing to students behind desks or tables. 

However, this trend gives young people the message that what really matters is the visual, outer-oriented process of making change. The implicit suggestion is that tending to our inner world is not really part of the process and not impactful in our work. 

I feel fortunate that, through a number of circumstances, I received support in questioning this assumption. I yearned to understand why Nelson Mandela maintained his spirit, dedication and hope during all those years in prison, how Dr. Martin Luther King motivated so many people and stayed so committed to nonviolence, and what about her inner world enabled Jane Goodall to see and hear what others had missed and then communicate the story so powerfully. In sort, I wanted to know the people responsible for some of history’s most important changes, not only what they did, but who they were inside. And this yearning was directly connected to the desire to know and tend to my own inner world, to understand the interface between who I was and my own quest for change. 

Through many avenues, many great mentors, through time spent immersed in contemplative practices and a graduate program in counseling psychology that directly connected my own inner-work with my capacity as a counselor for others, I began to unfurl the numerous, nuanced truths contained in Ghandi’s oft-quoted statement: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Why it matters

If you were setting out to change a particular policy, you would learn everything you could about the correct process for making such a change. You’d ask questions like: Who should I talk to? With whom do I need to build collaborative networks? What is the history of this policy and has anyone else tried to change it? Who can help me draft a new policy and who should propose it? You’d want to understand everything you could about the best possible process because you’d recognize that success is directly related to how you go about the process. 

The same is true for the inner world of changemakers. The most impactful changemakers have almost always been those who prioritize their inner world. These individuals – like Mandela, King and Goodall – recognize that our capacity for change is directly connected to concepts like courage, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, hope, our relationship to listening and learning, creativity, true resilience and much more. 

Consider, for example, the topic of hope. Clearly, changemakers are hopeful people. The very act of working for a better world suggests that one believes such a world is possible. However, hope takes many forms. The specific form of our relationship to hope will influence how we show up as changemakers and how prone we are to burnout. If hope is tied to a particular outcome and timeframe, it is easy to lose hope and give up when that specific goal is not reached. On the other hand, if we have explored and cultivated hope as a belief in possibility itself, our commitment to the process of making change is likely to extend beyond specific setbacks. In other words, we are more likely to contextualize setbacks as a learning process because we understand that part of working for change is being surprised by and open to unexpected possibilities that might make more sense than our original goals. 

We hear a lot about activist burnout. When I set out to research the topic, I quickly found that the greatest predictor of burnout was inattention to one’s inner world. Consequently, the best way to address burnout was to build self-awareness practices and actively cultivate the inner world. This connection speaks directly to the fact that, as changemakers, our inner world is critical to our work. 

And it is because of this connection that I return, again and again, to an expanding list of internal qualities that increasingly drive how I think about the goal of best supporting young people as they grow into a world with climate change. Meaningfully engaging in a challenging world that is desperate for positive change begins with cultivating a robust inner life. This inner life is what we travel with forever, after all, wherever we go and whatever we meet in our work for positive change. It forms an indispensable toolbox, through which we relate to others and the world around us. 

The inner world also directly forms our power as changemakers. Consider this, for a moment. How do we begin to conceive that we – as individual citizens – might actually be able to make positive and impactful change? Yes, we have multiple stories to turn to, scattered throughout history, of other individuals who inspired waves of change. But I don’t think our only inspiration comes from others. After all, what inspired the early changemakers to take on large systems and power with a hope for actual impact? I believe an inner sense of our capacity and strength drives us. And our inner world is directly tied to that inner sense of power. 

Consequently, one of the best things we can do as changemakers, along with studying topics like policy and history, education and economics, is to study ourselves and the inner life of others who realized impact. The more we know ourselves, the more mindfully we can interact with the world and each other and the more consciously and powerfully we can make change. 

The essential nature of this topic has inspired me to launch The Inner Life of Changemakers – Generation on the Edge’s first official program. This 12-week discussion-based group will begin September 21 and is for 14 – 18 year-olds. Read more at our programs page.

Categories: Activism

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