April 8, 2015
Stepping onto a liberal arts campus always feels like coming home. It feels that way for lots of reasons. Because they’re communities where ideas are the connective tissue. Because they’re places where the libraries have friends. But especially because there’s no better ecosystem for a hopeless interdisciplinarian. My advisor at Sewanee, Jerry Smith, would say emphatically: “specialization is for insects.” Perhaps because specialization eludes me like, very much like a zippy winged bug, I wholeheartedly agree.
So I’m going to take this setting and its deeply interdisciplinary purpose as an invitation, maybe even an excuse, to give a wide ranging talk that weaves together multiple, seemingly disparate threads: evangelicals and climate change, civic engagement and dinner parties, a bit of Shakespeare for good measure. It runs the risk of giving you too much insight into the veritable smorgasbord of my educational and professional life, but clemency is what the wine’s for.
The thread that holds these topics together is a question that can be found living comfortably on a leafy green campus like this one, in hearts and minds of all ages, in a high-powered boardroom, or amidst the hustle and bustle of a city: What does it mean to find a sense of purpose? And how can purpose be an animating force for individuals, institutions, communities, and social change? This exploration will give us our conceptual backdrop for conversation over dinner and dialogue about Charleston’s present and future – a weighty, timely topic, given the grievous events of this week.
The dictionary definition of purpose is “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” That is, the singular raison d’être of a person or a place or an entity. This is the definition we use in our work with companies at BrightHouse. Not what you do or sell, not where you’re going, not how you operate – purpose is the why, why you exist as an organization. We help companies define and live into their reason for being in the world.
“But don’t companies exist to make money?” I am often asked. Sure, companies have to make money to exist, just like we, as human beings, have to eat to stay alive. But as we all know, human life isn’t just about subsistence; it’s about love and laughter, community and connection, struggle and sacrifice, making memories and making a difference. Think of a company you truly admire – not just like or have loyalty to, but really, truly admire. I suspect your admiration isn’t just about shareholder returns; we admire companies that stand for something, that have a compelling role in the world.
Purpose, in this context, is powerful. It gives companies an essential north star that can align and inspire thousands of employees, that can guide the organization even as markets shift and industries transform, that inspires stakeholders, drives societal impact, and ultimately does benefit the bottom-line in significant ways.
It may come as no surprise that the other question I’m often asked is this: “Can you help me find my purpose?” On the one hand, I see each of those questions as a hopeful data-point, suggesting that impact and fulfillment are trumping conventional definitions of success, that meaning is the currency of greatest value, that the human need for wholeness is being heeded, rather than bifurcating “what I do” from “who I am.” But it’s also a question that’s come to trouble me more and more, not just because of the angst that often accompanies it.
What troubles me is the sense of singularity and clarity implicit in the question – and in our public discourse about purpose generally. It suggests that purpose is a thing, a capital “A” Answer – perhaps sitting out there somewhere, waiting for me to find it, if only I had the map; or in here somewhere, if only it would come out to play. It somehow suggests that I’m stuck, waiting for purpose to find and redeem me, so we can be together forever and ever amen. It also suggests that until I have that thing, purpose, I’m simply muddling about in no man’s land, frittering away my life, lost in some kind of unenlightened fog.
This way of thinking about purpose can foster fear and trembling, a sense of paralysis, a wait-and-see approach to life. It can also foster a terrifying level of certainty and resistance to growth and evolution. But if we turn the kaleidoscope just slightly, we can start to see purpose not as an end game but as a way of being.
To begin unpacking this way of thinking about purpose, let me turn back the clock to 2006. At the time, I was a newly minted BA, working for the Natural Resources Defense Council – one of the big environmental advocacy groups – on forest and land-use issues in the Southeast. To wield some blunt stereotypes, I was spending a lot of time in country music, NASCAR, mega church country – and I was struck by how often the environmental movement speaks right past audiences it really should engage. And I was wrestling, as an idealistic 22-year old, with how to build political will and public engagement around issues that had such a strong hold on my own heart and mind – but consistently ranked near the bottom of most people’s concerns.
In the midst of this wrestling, I encountered a surprising full-page ad in the New York Times announcing: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” It was a coming out notice for the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a coalition of evangelical leaders from across the country who were standing up and speaking out on the issue of climate change – in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom about evangelical issues and politics.
Not an evangelical myself, I was both perplexed and intrigued by this burgeoning phenomenon and its potential to be a force for change. A Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford gave me the opportunity to indulge that interest at length. For my PhD research, I left behind the pubs and punts of the UK and toured across the American evangelical landscape, interviewing evangelical leaders who had taken up this charge, doing focus groups in churches, and getting immersed in what I came to call the climate care movement – its history, strategy, successes, and struggles. Ultimately that research found a home in my book, Between God & Green, which chronicles the story of evangelical climate care.
Many of the conversations I had were fascinating, eye-opening, inspiring, but one story stands out. In the summer of 2002, two unlikely acquaintances found themselves walking together along a park path, beneath Oxford’s “dreaming spires.” At the time, Richard Cizik was the head lobbyist and public policy guru at the National Association of Evangelicals, in Washington, DC. Sir John Houghton had recently wrapped up 14 years of chairing the scientific arm of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a big name for an organization with a big task: synthesizing peer-reviewed climate science from around the world. The two men were there for a gathering of climate researchers, policy makers, and Christian leaders, but slipped off at some point for a more personal conversation.
In addition to being a preeminent atmospheric physicist, Sir John is also a steadfast evangelical – he and Cizik share a core set of beliefs and religious identity. And as they strolled, he spoke to Cizik about his own experience at the intersection of faith and science, making the case that no Christian could “shirk, shrug, rationalize, or escape” the biblical responsibility to care for God’s creation and, hence, to address climate change. Cizik describes feeling his heart “strangely warmed” and experiencing what he identifies as a conversion to climate change – echoing his conversion to Christ two decades earlier. Sensing that God had intervened in his life at this crucial moment, Cizik departed Oxford with a passionate commitment to addressing the issue – joining other key advocates back on this side of the pond.
Cizik’s is a powerful story, and we could tease out many lessons from it. About the power of shared identity and sense of trust is can foster – especially when you get the right match between the message, the messenger, and the audience. About the power of real, interpersonal dialogue on a thorny political issue, rather than the black-and-white debate that limits us to half-truths and half-solutions. We could take from it insights about the power of going beyond the nuts-and-bolts of an issue to the values, beliefs, and meaning at play – in this case, beyond the what of climate science to why it matters and why we’re called to engage. But there’s a rich lesson here about purpose as well.
For Cizik, his “climate conversion” isn’t a moment of finally finding his purpose, invalidating all that came before and dictating everything yet to come. It’s a moment of listening, both to his own being and to the world around him, and realizing an incongruity in his life – that he can’t be a Christian and not care about the future of our planet and its inhabitants. It’s a tension he can’t abide. He must bring his beliefs and identity into alignment with the ways he lives and leads. It’s a powerful moment, but, I imagine, just one such moment in a lifetime of them.
Cizik’s story reminds us that purpose isn’t singular, and it isn’t static. It isn’t about getting to an answer that makes everything simple. Purpose is about spending our days in worthy ways – many worthy ways, ways that may even surprise us or rub up against entrenched ways of being or doing. So rather than keeping a hopeful ear out for our purpose, our calling, we need only hear the call to live purposefully – with purpose – with intention and resolve. And we can heed that call to live with purpose in ways small and large, in circumstances of all stripes, wearing all of our different hats from friend to citizen to professional.
In a nod to the library, we can think of this task of living purposefully as the ongoing task of being a reader. Reading ourselves – applying the power of introspection to understand who we are, our true nature, and what we stand for. But also reading the world – using the power of “outrospection” to see ourselves in context and perceive the needs of others and society. Inviting a dialogue between those two – the inner and the outer – and taking part in the constant evolution of their confluence – that’s what purpose is about.
It’s this meaning of purpose that finds a home in the name “Cities of Purpose” – the civic venture I co-founded with Dar Vanderbeck and Jenn Graham, two fabulous partners in what civil rights icon John Lewis calls “good trouble, necessary trouble.” We kept finding ourselves in similar conversations: “I know there are exciting things happening in Atlanta, but I can’t find a way to dig in.” “I want to be involved in shaping the future of our city, but there aren’t any good footholds.” “I’ve been here for three years, but I can’t find my people. I guess I’ll have to move back to New York.” They nagged at us, these comments.
There’s so much energy in the city, for the city, for helping to write its next chapter, but forums to channel that energy are wildly deficient. There are certainly meaningful platforms for engagement, but they’re largely inaccessible, behind closed doors, pay-to-play – they privilege older, wealthier residents, often more white and more male. And then there are accessible platforms for “engagement,” but the irony is that they couldn’t be less engaging – lengthy online surveys or drab town halls, where you, Citizen Jane, can make your 45-second plea beneath the buzz of fluorescent lighting. If it’s called civic engagement, shouldn’t it actually be engaging??
We think it should be – and we think it can be. So, we’ve set out to reinvigorate the way we foster community and engagement in the 21st century city. We believe places are made by making places at the table: that people want to be connected in and to their cities, but often struggle to find footholds; that the most successful cities create open access to community and voice; that relationships are a key ingredient to vibrant societies. So we’re reinvigorating an age-old tradition: gathering around a table to break bread, forge new relationships, and have purposeful conversation about our greatest hopes for the places we call home.
Let me paint a picture for you: It’s a Sunday evening. Ten Atlantans from six different neighborhoods are gathered around an old wooden table in someone’s home. One was born in Atlanta; another just arrived three weeks ago. They’re sharing their favorite secret spots in the city. They’re articulating their greatest hope for Atlanta. They’re exploring what the world would lose if Atlanta were gone tomorrow. It’s a conversation they’ve never had about this place they share. New connections are being formed; old relationships are being enriched. Fresh ideas for change are bubbling up. The people around the table feel a sense of place, of community, of belonging. They feel more connected to and more engaged in their city than they did two hours before. Now imagine scenes like this popping up all over Atlanta. That’s what happened last year, when we launched our pilot Civic Dinner Party Project.
The recipe was simple, as most good recipes are: 8-10 people around a table, 3 big questions about Atlanta’s purpose and potential, a single, important conversation – and, of course, food! We deployed an open-access tech platform, through which people could register to host and attend dinners, and a carefully curated toolkit for hosting. Across Atlanta, people took their places at the table. We heard feedback like this: “I’ve never sat a table this diverse; I share a city with these people but never had a venue so open to get to know each other.”
Bootstrapped with passion, our Atlanta pilot taught us that the hunger for a place-based community of engagement is deep – even deeper than we had realized. But we desperately need more relevant and vibrant platforms to build and sustain it. Having created our prototype last year, we’re now deploying the Cities of Purpose model in a variety of ways, all designed to invite fresh voices into charting the course of our city and to capture ideas and insights from these “dream big” and “think bold” dinner conversations.
We hope Atlanta is only our first testing ground because, of course, we aren’t alone in our civic engagement challenges, nor in the incredible opportunity of tapping into citizens’ energy and interest. In 2008, humankind officially became an urban species, with the majority of people on our planet now residing in cities – and that percentage continues to climb. Our complex urban systems face huge challenges of mobility, sustainability, equity and inclusion, and competitiveness. At the same time, the success of cities depends upon their openness, hospitality, and associational quality – inviting civic connection and participation, building social capital. Research suggests social networks may, in fact, be a city’s most essential asset – helping seize the highs and make it through the lows.
So we have to face these challenges in community, bringing together people and place, with purpose. And something as simple as an old wooden dinner table can be the birthplace of social change – connecting thinkers and doers, raising questions worth asking and issues that matter, creating a catalyst for connection and an engine for ideas. The dinner table can make a powerful invitation to be a citizen of purpose and join a community of engagement. And for us, as co-founders, cultivating that invitation, sustaining that community, creating a sense of belonging that forms the basis of long-term change – that’s a noble purpose indeed.
The dinner table, of course, is not far off from the seminar tables dotting this campus, nor from an intimate roundtable once held in John and Libby Winthrop’s home. As a deeply, intentionally place-based community, the liberal arts college can cultivate the kinds of purposeful people – neighbors, citizens, professionals, leaders – our society depends on. When I passed through Sewanee’s gates with diploma in hand, I could never have imagined what the next 10 years would hold in store. I had some notion that my life’s purpose was sustainability – “to work for the world’s benefit, maintaining its treasures and repairing its wounds.” What I didn’t realize was that Sewanee had equipped me in critical ways – not to pursue a purpose, but to live purposefully in the world, to craft a life mosaic with intention and resolve.
That’s because, at their best, liberal arts colleges aren’t just shepherding the life of the mind; they’re also tending to the life of the heart – something we under-index on in higher education today. When these institutions are at their best, students hone a critical eye with many lenses, as well as a hopeful heart, committed to a brighter future. As the current of our world becomes increasingly swift and unpredictable, graduates’ ability to read themselves and the world around them will become more and more important. For straight paths will elude them, and straight paths, I would argue, have never been the point anyway.
I concluded my undergraduate valedictory address with poet Mary Oliver’s poignant question: “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I would propose now that the task of life is not to have one answer to her question, but to engage with it over and over again. It’s less about planning, and more about living into life’s wildness, life’s preciousness constantly and with plurality, learning from the moments when it all happens beautifully, and from the moments when the train really jumps the tracks. My life has certainly spoken to me through both – including instances of indisputable insistence that I change course, or risk a full-fledged revolt.
I promised you Shakespeare, so let me end with the Bard before we feast. When blind Gloucester and mad King Lear encounter one another on the heaths of Dover, Lear asks his old friend, “Dost thou squiny at me?” Though Gloucester has nothing more than a case of eyes, Lear makes a piercing assessment: “yet [Gloucester] you see how this world goes.” Yes, Gloucester says, “I see it feelingly.” To see the world, and our place in it, feelingly is at the heart of the journey of purpose and the purpose of the journey of being human. For all of us who’ve wondered, “what might my purpose be?” this may be the best news of all. Forget nailing it down once and for all; purpose is in the process and being purposeful is limitless proposition.
KATHARINE K. WILKINSON
© Katharine K. Wilkinson