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Democracy is my side project now.

Sorry for that insipid headline, but hey, it got you here.

Published onNov 10, 2016
Democracy is my side project now.

I could spend a lot of time writing a nice preamble to this, but let’s just cut right to the chase: like a lot of privileged white, straight, cis millennials, I make a good living, I donate to various causes, and I read and amplify progressive ideas from a diverse group of people. I want to be a decent ally. But the truth is I largely don’t follow through and really get involved beyond reading and donating. I’ve wanted to, and made a lot of justifications for my lack of action before. Mostly, I’ve been busy! Busy earning a living, busy doing jobs that, I tell myself, have a net-positive impact on the world.

But everyone’s busy. During the sleepless night and morning, I started asking myself: what have I really been busy with? And the answer is crystal clear. I spend much of my time on a favorite millennial past-time: the side project. You know, dreaming up various business ideas or building websites and apps. These projects are fun, and they fulfill two key needs for me: they’re mentally engaging in a different way than work is, and they give me the illusion of a safety net because I get to tell myself that one of them might take off, or that at least I’ll learn some valuable skills along the way.

But at the end of the day, I spend a lot of time on endeavors that don’t amount to much. Last night, watching friends in despair brought that home for me (I know: why did it take so long to understand this? I can only offer my apologies). It is spectacularly painful to realize I’ve spent so much time and energy on projects for myself that had little chance of succeeding, when I could have applied my need to engage my brain to something more immediately productive and impactful with the people suffering right now.

Today, that changes. I’m not at the place where I can commit myself to a life of full-time activism. I have a mortgage to pay and a promising main gig that I hope will be hugely impactful in a positive way. And honestly, I’m not sure if I would make the best activist. At the same time, if there’s something I’ve learned about myself (and a ton of friends like me), it’s that I’ll always need a side project to keep different parts of my brain engaged.

From now on, my side project is helping to undo the damage we did yesterday. Yes, that is a pretty glib way of saying, “I’m gonna do the work.” But you know what? It’s a convenient metaphor that matches the way I’ve structured my life. And I suspect it will be for a lot of other people, too.

So. This is the place where this essay could turn into a problematic mess of me promising some sort of crazy catch-all technological solution to our problems that is at once insanely privileged and guaranteed to fail.

But I’m not going to let that happen. Instead, what I’m going to do first is really simple: try a few of the things Anil Dash suggests here, starting with going to my local community board meetings and listening. I’m also going to start volunteering for local organizations that put me in situations where I get to listen to people in my neighborhood. I’m going to donate as much as I can (initial target: 10% of income) to organizations that provide community resources. And of course, I’m going to be even more compassionate to all the people in my life, especially those suffering the most right now.

I’m also going to be on the lookout for opportunities to do work on issues that are highly motivating to me (mostly because I think they could solve for some of the larger issues our country faces). In no particular order, here are some specific things I’d most like to work with people on, that either can be achieved at the state level, or have some bipartisan appeal:

  • Top Two Non-Partisan Primaries

  • Automatic Voter Registration

  • Universal Health Care at the State Level

  • Universal Basic Income

  • Ban Private Prisons at the State Level

We all know what the bad news is, so here’s the good news: my new side project will be just as mentally engaging and, at times, as fun as building websites and scheming about business ideas. In fact, building websites and tools for people will likely still be some part of it, once I figure out where I can put those skills to real use. And like before, I’ll learn a lot of new and valuable skills in the process. But instead of giving myself a false sense of security, it will actually help build a society where everyone has real security. Instead of being a pipe dream, it will do some real good, right away, even if nothing “takes off.”

I was able to write this because I’m one of the lucky people who isn’t really afraid for their safety today. I’m feeling incredibly listless and depressed, but not actually in danger. This really isn’t intended for people who are working on how to stay safe. (If you are one of those folks, please get in touch and let me know what I can do for you right now.) Instead, it’s directed at people who are already wondering what they can do, which probably means they look a lot like me.

If you’re one of those people; if, like me, you’re feeling despondent today but have fantasized about doing impactful side projects, I invite you to join me. Take on something from this list instead of your next website or app or business idea. Respond to this post, write your own, and get in touch.

Let’s get to work.

By Gabriel Stein on November 10, 2016.

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Exported from Medium on October 22, 2020.


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