Mapping the Road Less Traveled

Practical Idealists offers useful advice for young activists, but is utilitarian to a fault

Jean Forst

Progressives need a book that demonstrates to idealistic young people that they can pay the rent and transform society. The book would also nudge older people into activism and address the responsibilities of adulthood.

The book advises idealists to make the most of college, make lots of friends, be frugal and identify his or her skills. Yawn.

Sadly, Practical Idealists is not this book. 

A self-exploration manual, Practical Idealists: Changing the World and Getting Paid (Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University, October) draws on interviews with more than 40 people of varying professions who opt for social change careers that reflect their values,” write the authors.

At a scant 156 pages, this slim volume fans out in all the right directions – with the best of intentions – but with a reach that sorely exceeds its grasp.

One of the book’s strengths is that it attempts to open up activism to everyone, striking an appealingly democratic note. It identifies agents of social change not as anthropologist Margaret Meade’s small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” but as anybody and everybody.

The book also occasionally offers useful advice. Authors Ann Barham, John Hammock and Alissa S. Wilson warn against arrogance – an all too common sin (or, perhaps, indictment) of liberals. One interviewee tells of a team member whose egotism delayed a report on human security issues. This person’s repeated attempts to contribute to areas where he had no educational background or professional experience meant that other team members had to waste time correcting his unsolicited edits and comments.” 

In chapter 3, Work and Jobs,” the authors insist that idealists set up camp where their ambition aligns with their usefulness. Noting that ambitious progressives often want to form their own organizations, the authors caution against such a choice. 

In her interview, Amanda Edmonds, founder of Growing Hope, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes community gardening, advises progressives to join existing groups so you can really focus on doing your work as opposed to designing network computer systems or your database or those sorts of things.” 

Moreover, resisting the impulse to form new organizations could curtail the splintering that sometimes weakens liberal America’s power against the more monolithic Right. In other words, the message is to work within the already-existing system.

The book also addresses financial anxieties, with plenty of solid guidance. The authors advise college students not to borrow more money than they need and to consolidate what debt they do incur. They also suggest young people use debit instead of credit cards to help them understand how much they’re really spending.

Their emphasis on responsible personal finance also offers a welcome contrast to, say, the assurance a prominent activist once gave to her college student audience that, should they come work for her organization, she could help them ward off pesky student loan collectors. 

The chapter makes a good point that it’s best for an idealist not to defer his or her activist ambitions because, once accustomed to higher paying work in the private, for-profit sector, people rarely prove willing to downsize. 

The book advises idealists to make the most of college, make lots of friends, be frugal and identify his or her skills. Yawn. The authors of Practical Idealists would have done better to link the book’s advice with progressive causes. Instead, they tread into territory that has been covered before in the self-help books Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and What Color is Your Parachute?, which offered a step-by-step guide to finding meaningful work.

The authors relentlessly generate checklists, almost in a need to organize and control the process of becoming an activist. They offer questions to consider when working in the public sector, a list of tasks to perform to minimize one’s student loans, and questions to discuss with your partner about working long hours at a difficult job. 

One could view this as a useful way to slow those prone to rushing into this or that project to save the world – but it’s unlikely a starry-eyed reader would ever slog through every question the book proposes. 

Indeed, no frozen passions coming to a boil ever spill out onto the book’s pages. Far more often, we are treated to sentences and even paragraphs in the riveting vein of it is about living out the meaning of one’s own life for the benefit of others through modeling practical idealist behaviors and involvement in social change.” 

Why the need for the illusion of safety, the endless generation of checklists? Perhaps because it is daunting to consider foregoing a lucrative career to affect change that may never come, let alone be appreciated. 

While it’s refreshing to read a liberal book resistant to caricature by conservatives, Practical Idealists plods too deliberately along, utilitarian to a fault.

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Jean Forst has worked as a community organizer around literacy, environmental and labor issues. She is completing a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Illinois.
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