Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life on the Margins

The conference season has started, full-steam ahead. If I wanted to, I could probably spend each week this spring and summer in a different city learning about some aspect of the nonprofit sector, social entrepreneurship or international development. But, I don't. Mostly because I hate airports and I can't afford the travel, but also because I've always felt very uncomfortable at conferences.

Granted, I haven't been to that many. I only went to my first big-time conference this year--the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference. It was fantastic, and even two months later, I'm still thinking about the discussion topics and presentations. But, while I was there, I had this lingering feeling that all of these meetings and discussions and talks were kind of a waste of time.

I had a similar feeling my senior year of college. After four years of academia and analysis of social problems, I was ready to get out there and make something happen. I was sick of talking, and I wanted to do. Sitting in a nice conference room in Cambridge, I was loving what was being said, but afterwards, thoughts crept into my head: What's the point of all this? Why should we spend time and resources talking about these things when we should really be putting them towards doing these things.

Well, I quickly dismissed those thoughts, just as now, two years out of school, I realized the role of education and discussion in effective social change. Without sharing experiences, we are all blindly going forward and hoping for the best. Without gathering in one place, we can't learn from each other and find ways to work together. Without discussions, we can't tease out the nuances and intricacies of the problems we are tackling.

So, I'm all for sharing and learning and working together, but there comes a time when we have to go back to where we came from, take what we learned, put it into action, and see what happens. Discussions and talks and keynotes builds an air of certainty and stability around a community or an idea, but really, everyone who has made something work at one time had no idea what they were doing, and decided to try something no one had ever talked about before.

My main (and really, only) criticism of shared learning and discussion has manifested itself in my consciousness as a Groucho Marx joke: "I wouldn't want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member." Sitting in the same room with the same people every year (not saying anyone actually does this, merely using hyperbole to illustrate a point) will only produce the same ideas. If you want to think of new things, you need to push yourself beyond what you are familiar with and go out to uncharted areas of activism and social change. In is in these margins of society where we will find the transformative change needed for society's problems.

And once you live on those margins and find those transformations, you can come back and speak all about it at next year's conference circuit. I'll be there, anxiously waiting to hear and learn from you.
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