Two Millennials Hit the Road to Explore the Meaning of Meaningful Work

Michael Brooks & Philip L. Mckenzie | May 30, 2015


Like many Millennials, Megan Hafner and Betsy Ramaccia want their work to have meaning and impact. But what exactly does that mean? Few of their peers, they saw, had any real sense of what such work would look like. They conceived of  Why We Work Here, a road-trip-cum-research-project, to explore the question: “What does it look like to work for a world you want to live in?”

The 3-month trip, financed by an Indiegogo campaign, will take them from western North Carolina to Seattle, Washington, with stops along the way to visit innovative organizations that are working locally to make their communities more socially and economically resilient. The pair plans to compile these stories to offer young people tangible examples of what meaningful work can look like.  

Philip L. Mckenzie and Michael Brooks caught up with Megan (pictured above right) and Betsy (left) in Morgantown, NC, where the women were visiting the Carolina Textile District, a network of textile manufacturers committed to revitalizing American textile production and livelihoods. Other stops on their trip include People United for Sustainable Housing (Buffalo, NY), the Evergreen Cooperatives (Cleveland, OH), Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (Saint Paul, MN), Incourage Community Foundation (Wisconsin Rapids, WI), and Forterra (Seattle, WA). 

Michael Brooks/Philip L. Mckenzie: What sparked the Why We Work Here journey? What was your motivation and what do you hope to accomplish?

Betsy Ramaccia: Megan and I worked together at a company in New York that partnered with companies, non-profits and other organizations to develop strategies to engage broad bases of people around any number of social and economic issues. We were both interested in examining issues through a new lens rather than the traditional ways. We also shared a background in public education projects and were intrigued by models of change that were local but had the capacity for broader implications. We determined both processes could address specific policies or become new local models themselves.

Megan Hafner: We were frustrated with buzzwords like “social impact.” What does it mean and what does it actually look like? The same with “meaningful work?” What does that look like in the 21st century? People are grappling with these kinds of questions and feel unsatisfied. Even in the social impact world, where people are part of these institutions that are designed to do good, their efforts are stymied and they don’t deliver the results they were hoping for. Our generation cares deeply, and wants to build a different world. But they can’t find careers that capture that type of excitement and sense of purpose.

So the project began with us identifying organizations doing meaningful work, measuring their success with new methods, and examining the questions of meaning and impact from a local level. At the end of the project, these stories will be collected and condensed so as to provide a roadmap of alternatives to young people who might not have otherwise known these paths were available to them.

Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned textile cooperative in Morgantown, NC (all photos courtesy Why We Work Here)
Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned textile cooperative in Morgantown, NC (all photos courtesy Why We Work Here)

MB/PLM: How important is it to broaden options for those looking to do social change work, both in terms of career satisfaction and having a strong impact on the types of issues we want to address?

Megan: I think we are both eager to get to the point where you don’t have to talk about social impact work as if it’s some separate field that exists apart from other “traditional work” that is needed for the world to function. There are billions of people living on the planet, with a host of needs: clothing, housing, proper nutrition, education, etc. How can we provide those things in a way that isn’t going to exploit people, natural resources, or anything else? We also need to create work where people can have pride, satisfaction and a sense of agency in how they are living their lives. It’s a very simple notion and yet we haven’t been very good in creating that world. That is how we should be thinking of social impact. It isn’t a field of work, it is work.

“Many of these young people want to stay in their communities and hometowns but don’t know there are viable alternatives.”

Betsy: It’s not so much about what you’re doing or what type of organization you’re working for, it’s more about how you are working. The organization that we’ve been with these past two weeks, the Carolina Textile District, is a great example. There are fashion designers, sock makers, textile chemists, etc. all working in trades that are very old. Many methods of manufacturing are traditionally incredibly exploitive. But what they’re trying to do [here] is create more of a cooperative economy, so it’s more about the ecosystem that those individuals have placed themselves in rather than the work itself. Hopefully we can get to a point where social impact careers are not only for folks who are out on the picket line or are the “do-gooders.”

MB/PLM: So social impact as a field should be naturally baked into all of our work no matter what it is. Is that a fair summation?

Megan: Social impact is a phrase that is used so frequently it has lost all of its meaning. We would rather focus on how we engage in our work responsibly. If we were truly serving others and helping to meet the needs of people around us, I think we would be living in a very different world. By just talking about these concepts as “social impact,” we miss the chance to determine how we create a local economy that gives people a voice in how they live their lives.

MB/PLM: Language matters a lot. So how important do you think it is to make the language of change more accessible and relatable to the people you are working with?

Megan: We struggled with this from Day One. Inherently we had a sense of the kinds of organizations and people that we were really interested in talking to. What’s funny is initially people are nervous about talking to us because they don’t think they are qualified, almost as if they don’t know how to talk about these issues using this very evolved language. As a result ,we’ve had to experiment with many different ways of talking about what this project actually is.

A worker-owner at Green City Growers in Cleveland
A worker-owner at Green City Growers in Cleveland

Betsy: When we use “social impact” vocabulary or when we talk about “systems change,” quite frankly you are framing the conversation from a particular class. I think this is something that should be accessible to people of all backgrounds. We aren’t just talking to people who have college degrees and are founders of these organizations, we’re talking to folks who came through the ranks through different means.

MB/PLM: Any specific ideas about delivering these materials to young people?

Megan: We realized early on if we were going to do even a half decent job of bringing this work to people in high school and college, we need to speak their language. We wanted to make sure we allotted time throughout this trip to spend time with students and hear their stories. Many of these young people want to stay in their communities and hometowns but don’t know there are viable alternatives. If we share these local social enterprise stories, in accessible language, we can begin to provide that alternative roadmap.

“At the local level you have the opportunity to prove something works. And it’s the proof, not just the rhetoric, that can change people’s minds.”

MB/PLM: What was the intention behind the cities and organizations you are interacting with? Was it geographic or sector-based? Or did you just find exceptional performing examples and follow that?

Betsy: We wanted a set of organizations that represented a broad range of institutional structures, geographical areas and a diversity of structural issues in order to challenge people’s perception of what good work can look like. It was important that the organizations were geographically focused either by a defined neighborhood or region. That allows us to measure how they are creating opportunities and social mobility on a local level—for example, are they taking advantage of community assets, whether that is environmental, cultural, historical financial, personal, etc. and weren’t exploitative of those assets.

We were also looking at organizations that are intentionally inclusive, whether that’s Push Buffalo, doing lots of door-knocking, membership building and setting an agenda annually based on what their membership says, or whether [it’s] Carolina Textile District being willing to have very hard conversations with sort of old timers that don’t understand why they are cooperating with people they used to compete with. Finally, [we looked at] what can we pull out of that local geographical matrix and extrapolate to having larger impact.

MB/PLM: What are you thinking in terms of policy and power shifts that need to be developed in concert with these social initiatives in order for them to compete and be more viable?

Megan: One of the things we’re most excited about is seeing shifts in local policy, [where] small municipalities and in some cases even large cities are saying, ‘we don’t agree with what’s happening on a national level and we have the public support to do things differently.’

On the road in western New Mexico
On the road in western New Mexico

We were talking with a woman who runs a cut-and-sew factory in western North Carolina. Initially she had hoped that more manufacturers would see the value of cooperatives, not only in terms of employees but also how to run a cut-and-sew company. She quickly figured out that that wasn’t going to happen in any short term timeframe and that the best thing she could do was do her job extremely well, work with her team, which is an incredibly talented group of people, and show that she could have people lining up outside the door to come work for her when all these other manufacturers are struggling to find workers.

Betsy: It seems like when you work at the local level you have the opportunity to prove something works. And it’s the proof, not just the rhetoric, that can change people’s minds.

Philip L. Mckenzie is the Founder and Global Curator of Influencer Conference, a global content platform that brings together tastemakers in the arts, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and technology to discuss the current and future state of influencer culture.

Michael Brooks is a co-host on the award winning daily political Podcast and Youtube the Majority Report and a strategist for InfluencerCon. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Good, Huffington Post and Middle East Eye. He appears as an analyst on Al Jazeera, France 24 and CCTV. Michael and Philip are co-authoring a book titled, “There Are No Shortcuts! A Revolutionaries Guide To The Future.”


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