International Social Change

Social change, empowerment, cultural integrity in a positive way. What does it mean to work in the field of social change for a living?

My name is Kristina, and I’m a development worker. I currently field manage a small NGO (non-governmental organisation, or a non-profit) focused on preserving and protecting Quechuan culture in the Andean Highlands in Peru. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I’ve always wanted to work in social change – I was just never entirely sure what that meant or how to do it while actually making a living. I originally planned on working as a counsellor with a women’s and family planning clinic so I began to study psychology. After several twists and turns, including a year studying in Mexico, a stint as a carpenter, and a Masters degree in International Relations, I find myself working to effect social change in the form of international development. I manage a scholarship program to create leaders in Quechuan communities.

 I can’t speak for other methods of social change, what I know is development and grassroots NGO’s. That said, however, I believe there are some really important things I’ve learned while working on positive change in communities:

  1. Look for projects/programs/organisations that have a long term game. Those who have a short term focus can do more harm than good, and aren’t typically adopted by the community anyway. 
  2. Look for projects that have an active exit strategy – social change is dependent on being able to maintain positive changes once those who bring it about are no longer there to support it. Cycles of dependency (when change is contingent on those who are bringing it to the community, and therefore requires that they stay in the community as change leaders) are not sustainable and not empowering. In development, long term programs that look to replace white/global north employees with employees from the communities they work in are a good indication of breaking cycles of dependency.
  3. Recognise the importance of cultural traditions of the community you are working in. If the change you want to bring goes directly against beliefs or traditions, you should question why you want to bring that change.
  4. Don’t do it for the money. If you’re doing it for the money you are in the ENTIRELY wrong field, and should look into investment banking or the energy sector.
  5. It’s ok to get frustrated every now and then. My job seems remarkably similar to beating my head against a brick wall at times – it is not an easy task to dedicate your time to social change. A lot of work goes in, and sometimes nothing comes out. What matters is how you deal with frustrations.
  6. Celebrate the small triumphs. Even if the objective of your event or project wasn’t fulfilled, recognise the small wins you had on the journey there. They are every bit as important to the big picture.
  7. Never forget why you’re there in the first place. It can be easy to get bogged down and lose your drive, but it’s always worth it. 

Can you make a living effecting social change? The facetious answer, of course, is no. The truth is, though, that you can with certain sacrifices. I can only speak from my own experience, but it’s not entirely difficult. Life becomes much simpler, honestly. I don’t have kids, I don’t own a car, I make my own food bought from local markets, I find the free events happening in town (of which there are many), and I hang out with my local and NGO friends. I absolutely love my job, and look forward to working most days (except computer days), and I am looking forward to applying what I’m learning here in Peru to future positions in social development in Canada.

My job takes me to places off the beaten tourist track!

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