A Meal With the Millennials

Last night, I had dinner with seven young men—the equivalent of a Texas posse, I suppose. We walked out of the Halcyon Coffee Shop together, and, because Don Miller hadn’t immediately dropped to his knees and proposed to me, I decided the next best thing to do was to accept the dinner invite to hang with the guys who read Don’s books.

One of the guys confessed that he was rarely ever star struck but when Don entered the café, he was working very hard to be cool. “I didn’t want to go up and go, ‘Wow. Like can I have your autograph?’ But this guy changed my life. His books have been huge to me. I was thinking, maybe I could take a discreet photo of him with my cell phone…”

I stepped into his car and there was one of Don’s books on the seat. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too. (Emerson’s book, that is. I’m pretty sure ol’ Ralph is dead.) I honestly try not to judge a book by its cover, but I do form opinions about people based on the books they read. Can’t help it. I’m shallow. The guy driving the car was not.

Dinner confirmed two things for me. One, everything is bigger in Texas. Particularly the cockroaches. One crawled up on the windowsill behind our booth and was quickly squashed by one of my brave dinner companions.

My second finding is that there really is a movement afoot of social entrepreneurs—a whole generation of people passionate about ending poverty; bringing clean water to the world; caring for homeless people; starting up socially conscious, ecologically friendly businesses. Living simply so others can simply live.

When I was in college a decade and a half ago, the movement was just beginning to emerge. Pepperdine had a handful of students in a new major called, “American Humanics” who were learning the ins and outs of non-profit management. Students across the university showed up en masse for Step Forward Day, the university’s day dedicated to volunteer outreach to the community. (I know. I hear the jokes already: What’d you do? Helped Malibuites with their spray tans?)

There was certainly a renewed concern for the world that seemed to emulate the social concerns of the ‘60s, but students weren’t marching and protesting as much as they were beginning to shun traditional corporate jobs for “meaningful work.”

Today, a whole millennial generation (kids born between 1980 – 2000) are socially conscious and savvy about the needs of the world. Research on college majors indicates that students are increasingly preparing for jobs in public service or the social sector instead of traditional work in (formerly) profitable careers in finance or engineering or law.

Business schools across the country are introducing more courses on social entrepreneurship, and a ton of major universities host competitions for business students who are considering startups of such things as micro-finance institutions (groups that give out small loans to start-up businesses in the developing world).

I told the Texas guys about Seattle Pacific University’s social venture project. They told me about UT’s social venture competition which is like SPU’s…on steroids. The first place winner at UT’s social venture competitions is awarded $50,000 of venture capital as seed money for their business proposal. As I was saying, everything is bigger in Texas.

Over dinner, one man told me about his work placing abandoned children with foster parents in Honduras. Another started an organization to rescue young girls out of sex-trafficking, provide a safe house for them, and help them with trauma counseling and job skills. I was enthralled listening to all of them and resonated with their passion and zeal for improving the world.

It was very cool that they had deeply thought through their theology about God’s concerns for the poor even as they were fairly realistic about what the tensions would be between living wholly sold out to do this kind of work against the realities of supporting spouses, having children and just living life in a way that makes your ideals achievable.

There is so much need. It’s going to require a whole generation and more to even begin to address the problems at home and abroad. If I have any hesitations at all to the bursting enthusiasm of these people, it’s only a few things that give me pause:

First, poverty is complex. We shouldn’t throw up our hands and say, “Can’t change anything. Why try?” But we also shouldn’t be naïve when we endeavor to do good. Take, for example, the noble idea of putting together a short-term mission project for teenagers to build a school.

Assuming that a group of students have suitable construction skills to build a classroom that will hold up under hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, have they considered the whole context of need in the area? Does the village have a trained teacher for the building? Does the village have the means to pay for a teacher? If the school is built, are kids healthy enough to attend? Do parents have the means to buy them the requisite uniforms and school supplies a child will need for school? Will girl children be allowed an education or will traditions require that she remain at home to help her mother or marry early? Will a child be able to attend school at all, or will she need to care for a parent dying of AIDS? Or remain at home to care for younger siblings already orphaned by AIDS? Is there stability for children to attend school or are people frequently displaced by warfare and civil strife in an area? A building remains empty unless all of these impediments to education are addressed.

Second, I wonder if so many social startups are reinventing the wheel and failing to leverage the expertise and reputations of more established organizations. Bear with me if this sounds self-serving from an employee of a large and an almost six-decades-old humanitarian organization. But larger and older organizations benefit from experience—we’ve learned from our history of mistakes. Sure there are down sides to size as you sometimes lose the ability to be nimble, entrepreneurial and so on. But established reputations mean fewer dollars are diverted into marketing and fundraising because we already have a dedicated group of faithful donors.

New organizations have to constantly create awareness of their work; market themselves to raise funds, develop systems to provide feedback to donors and gain the trust of the people they want to work with. It’s a bit inefficient to start-up something, when dozens of organizations already exist to do the same kind of work. I’m not advising that start-ups are wrong, just hoping that they have a unique niche to fill that isn’t already being addressed by other groups. International Justice Mission, as one example, does fantastic work advocating to end sex-trafficking and rescuing young girls out of prostitution and they have the connections and infrastructure to do this well.

World Vision has extensive history, and therefore trust, built up with communities, generally hiring national staff who speak the language and intimately know the nuances of the culture and traditions.

Third, social work has to be well-conceived both with the service provided as well as the process for how you raise awareness and funds for your work. It’s harder than it seems. Don Miller is onto something with the observation that sometimes people invest little of themselves—they make a purchase or hand over some money and feel good that they’ve done their part. (Click on a vocabulary test that promises to send a grain of rice to a hungry nation for each correct answer. Purchase RED products.) But real change takes an investment of time—on the part of the donor and the recipient.

All of that to say, I loved my time with those guys. It was a totally great last supper in Austin. The guys were smart and passionate and informed about the issues. They were engaged in topics that I care deeply about. It was a posse full of possibilities, and I wish them well on the journey.

One Day In Austin

Don and I met at a coffee house today. I suspect we’ll be announcing wedding plans in a few days…we just want to take things slow, ‘ya know, don’t rush things…really get to know each other well.

I should back up for my friends who are new to this conversation. My small group from church read Don Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz this past year. It was a really good book. (This is why I don’t write book reviews. War and Peace? Well, that was a very long book. Gladwell’s Outliers? That was a very interesting book.) I digress, so back to Don.

I like the way his brain works. He’s got some synapses that seem to be firing in the right patterns, and I’d say he’s capable of stringing together a sentence or two. (A million or more sold copies of his book might attest to the fact that someone out there agrees with me about his writing skills. Or, more likely, his amazingly beautiful and honest thoughts about faith.)

Shortly after I finished Blue Like Jazz, my friend Kris (who has a massive crush on Don but only in a very holy and spiritual way of course, because she’s married) sent me a link to Don’s blog where he had posted a video of Lucy, his new chocolate Lab. It was total puppy love. It might also have been a classic case of transference.

Lucy was careening around Don’s home chewing up everything in sight. My black lab, Whistler, chewed my rugs. Whistler destroyed my shoes. I was waiting for video footage of Lucy chewing Don’s walls down to the studs, and while I waited, I thought about how committed I was to my crazy beast. I love Whistler. I love Labs, which meant that I loved Lucy, and while I was at it, I probably loved Don, too.

As fate would have it, Kris pointed out that in addition to Lucy, Don had an iMac. That clinched it. Same breed of dog. Same brand of computer. I mean, forget the fact that Labradors are like the most popular breed of dogs in the U.S. I’m taking it as a cosmic sign that we have the whole world in common with each other. Soul mates.

So fast-forward to the Q conference here in Austin, Texas. We’re listening to a series of 18-minute presentations from some pretty interesting folks: Gregory Berns, Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University on how the brain of an iconoclast works; Author Shane Hipps on the impact of technology on our souls; Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on the post-atomic world. Ten presentations on Day 1; nine more on Day 2 and then a panel discussion and breakout sessions.

I know that I’m a complete nerd, but I feel like a fly in a meat house at these conferences. I scribble notes. I soak in the speakers and the discussions. At our breaks for lunch and dinner, I like to talk with other conference attendees—particularly this one because of the shared passion for social ventures—and collect their business cards for possible interviews/features for the World Vision Report, where I work.

This afternoon, conference organizers sent us off to various sites across Austin to meet with small groups to discuss what we’ve heard over the past day and a half. I was in Don Miller’s group. (Confession is good for the soul, so I need to state that I wasn’t actually assigned to his group, but I might have misread the group number on my lanyard so as to end up at the coffee house where Don was group leader. Fate needs a helping hand at times.) I entered the coffee shop and noticed that our small group was rather large. A lot of young women were there. Pretty, single, young women who apparently were also having a hard time discerning their proper group assignments.

Don entered and surveyed the scene. We did not lock gazes across the room, so I casually walked over and introduced myself. I’m certain Don was instantly smitten. True love was looking him in the eye. All time stood still. [Fill in your own cliché.] He tried to play it cool, but he was shaking. My hand, that is. We shook hands. I told him we shared some mutual friends. (Larry Wilson who worked on World Vision magazine with me was now married to Susan Isaacs, a friend of Don’s…) I wanted to tell him all the other commonalities we shared. Dogs. Computers. Both of us reside in the Pacific Northwest. Both of us are citizens of planet earth. I needed a few more minutes to figure out what other ties bind us together…but Don was heading off to the barista to order something so he could start the session.

Our group talked about how dumb we felt to have our smart phones confiscated from us during the presentation on technology. We discussed the session with Ted and Gayle Haggard and the response of churches to leaders when they fall.

Don observed how easy it was for people who merely buy products connected to good causes to feel like they have done their part as humanitarians but they resist really getting involved. He talked about his foundation for fatherless boys and how difficult it’s been to recruit mentors to commit to befriending 7- to 12-year-old boys.

I told him that World Vision had an opposite version of this problem. Everyone wanted a hands-on, experiential involvement beyond financial contributions—take a trip somewhere, volunteer with us. But these were short-term involvements, so perhaps Don’s correct that there is a lack of response when it comes to messy, life-altering and life-involving, long-term commitments.

I wanted to say, “Don, I believe in long-term, life-altering commitments,” but another lovely lady was asking him to please come over to their table to tell them about The Story: “You’re the only one who can really talk to us about writing the arc of a story,” she said with batty eyelashes.

Don declined. He had another appointment to keep. I like to think he was just letting her down gently because today, he met me…and if nothing else, well, we’ll always have Austin!