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Martin Luther King

On MLK Day, The Perseverance of the Social Entrepreneur


Today we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who arguably could be called one of the first social entrepreneurs. The thing about social change is that it can be incredibly difficult, heart-breaking and time-consuming. It takes a tremendous tenacity to persevere until change comes.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King, which I think of often, counsels us to be patient and believe in change. Speaking on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in March of 1965, King said:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?”….

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.

How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow….

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

You can watch a clip of that speech above, or click here to watch it if you are reading this in an email.

And I’m also reminded of this beautiful blog post that Kjerstin Erickson, a social entrepreneur working with African refugees, wrote three years ago. As does any social entrepreneur, she had grown tired of the slow pace of change. But with King’s words she found solace and the will to move forward:

And yet, we’ve all found ourselves in moments like these. It’s part of the process of reconciling the world we want with the world we live in. To make it through such times, we often have no option but to turn to the words of those wiser than we. On this national holiday, it’s a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King’s legacy that to recognize the role that his words continue to play in the internal struggles of so many of us seekers. For me personally, King’s words on the human struggle for a loving world are the first I turn to when in need of clarity or solace. To me his brilliance lies in the way that he never told anyone anything new, but rather elucidated the truths they always already knew. If you find yourself struggling with any of the questions I asked above, perhaps you will, like me, find your answer within yourself through the words of these timeless passages.

All of us working toward social change must remember these words. There are times when the end goal seems so far away, when the hurdles appear completely insurmountable. It is at those very times that you must pick yourself up, take a deep breath, and move another step forward.

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Finding Inspiration in the Leaders of Social Change

The news lately has been less than inspiring. The census data released yesterday reports that the economy may be worse than we thought, with 15% of Americans in poverty, and the median income decreasing. After an almost 3-year recession that followed two wars and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I sometimes dwell on the fact that my oldest son, who will turn 10 in November, has grown up in an era of nearly constant uncertainty and fear. But instead of wallowing in these dreary days, we must find in ourselves, and particularly in those working toward social change, the will and determination to lead ourselves, our organizations, our communities away from despair.

These times require leaders who face the uncertainty with optimism, innovation and sheer willpower. And I don’t mean government leaders, although that would be nice for a change. I mean the leaders of even the smallest social change organization. In many ways, I believe it is up to the nonprofit sector and the countless organizations and funders that make up that great sector, to face, rather than shrink away from, the many challenges facing our country. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the big challenges and the littler ones. And the leaders of our nonprofit sector are already so worn down by continuously being forced to do more and more with less and less.

But when the constant barrage of bad news gets me down, and I struggle to understand what my son’s life will be when he is my age, I think of a blog post that Kjerstin Erickson wrote on Martin Luther King day 2010. Kjerstin is the executive director of FORGE, a nonprofit working in African refuge camps. In writing her post, she was overwhelmed by the devastation following the Haiti earthquake and struggled to return to the optimism that a social change leader must have:

For a few days, I admittedly found myself struggling with the question of whether the change I’m seeking is even pragmatically possible. I asked myself what all the struggle is for if it can all come crashing down in an ugly testimony to our global shortsightedness. In the midst of the shame and grief, I even asked myself if I may be happier by not even trying. In this world of optimism and change, those thoughts are sacrilege. And yet, we’ve all found ourselves in moments like these. It’s part of the process of reconciling the world we want with the world we live in.

Because, in reality, if you are a leader working towards fundamental change to a social problem you must be inherently optimistic. The beliefs that a better world is possible and that you can do something to make it happen are, by definition, optimistic ones. But Kjerstin, like so many working for a better world, has moments of deep despair when confronted with a growing and seemingly insurmountable list of problems.

However, for Kjerstin, and other leaders driving social change, it is untenable to remain in the grips of despair. It is up to those leaders like Kjerstin who have envisioned a world without poverty, or homelessness, or uninsured children, or crumbling schools to face the bad news head on, dust themselves off, and find inspiration wherever they can. Kjerstin’s inspiration came from the words of a great leader who came before her, Martin Luther King, Jr:

When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Now more than ever we need leaders who can point the way to brighter times ahead. And those leaders, that inspiration, I believe comes from the army of people leading social change: the inherently optimistic, passionate, driven, determined leaders who have never been content to sit idly by and watch problems go unsolved. They are the visionaries who believe, who have always believed, that there is still hope, that we can make something out of this mess. It is up to them to show us the way.

Photo Credit: kekecpp

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