Asking “why do you do what you do?” when what “you” do is advocacy might seem like a rhetorical question. After all, if you believe strongly in something, what could be more natural than investing time and effort toward it?”¨”¨But it’s not always that simple. People who earn their living assisting others in advocacy – or working for a large advocacy group with many missions under its umbrella – can often find themselves lending their effort to causes they don’t entirely support, or even approve of. Some may not even care! On the other end of the spectrum, people who are passionate about an issue, and may have winning, transformational ideas in their head, might never even get involved. Why? “¨”¨
Often, in those instances, it comes down to our need to put bread on the table, to earn a living that we find livable. Working to change and improve the lives of your fellow man may pay dividends of satisfaction, but it is rare to find the creditor, landlord, or college that accepts those in payment. True, there are the lucky few who find their match in scholarships, fellowships, and benefactors, but what of the rest of us? “¨”¨We have to try.
I’ve been an advocate and an activist at heart for as far back as I know – it’s in my blood. Since back when my parents pushed my stroller in the 1982 anti-nukes rally in Central Park, and three-year me improvised the chant, “No More Ka-booms!” Since I volunteered to stand before my peers and speak on behalf of Dukakis in a civics assembly in my (very upstate-Republican) elementary school. “¨”¨But like many people of good heart and pure intentions, I, as I grew up, found it hard to make that a full-time effort; much less without compromising ideals and agendas. Advocacy became a matter of the occasional volunteer jaunt, the online donation, the signing of a petition. Keeping my head above water, and my bank account above zero became a more pressing interest.
After a brief, last grasp at political involvement, serving on Capitol Hill for a year as a legislative gopher, I wound up at an investment bank in New York, setting aside all my true interests and passions for eight hours a day in exchange for a steady paycheck and decent benefits. “¨”¨It was the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama that reminded me of the intangible satisfaction of actively working in public for a cause you believed in. The genius of Obama’s 2008 campaign was leveraging social networking to open up more ways for the casual activist to take action – and put a personal stamp on it. Regardless of what came after, it was a reminder that some of the biggest changes start on the smallest, most individual scale, and that innovation and passion can take us places where once only long resumes and padded bankrolls dared tread.”¨”¨
So, when I could no longer contain my concern with the resurgent spread of HIV among the young gay community, I decided to get involved — in no matter how small a way. I researched what was being done, and by whom, and tried to figure out what was missing from existing approaches. Besides just volunteering or contributing, I found there was an untapped potential, something unique that I could bring to prevention efforts — and thus began my ongoing effort to start a project, led by young gay men, to harness the power of social media to educate and advocate for prevention of HIV, and fight against high-risk behaviors.”¨”¨It’s been a slower course than I’d initially hoped — but all the same, the time is nearing when I won’t be able to work on both that and on my “day job” at the same time. The amazing thing is, I’ve found that with the prospect of working on something I really care about, and have a personal stake in, I’m willing to make sacrifices, and take chances, I never envisioned taking before.
No one ever lay on their deathbed thinking “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” or “I wish I’d made more money.” But I know, no matter what happens, I’ll at least be able to lay on mine thinking “I took my best damn shot to make the world a better place.” And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.