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A couple of years ago, I was at a newsstand in the airport waiting for my flight home to Toronto, chewing gum and flipping through a Rolling Stone. In the middle of the magazine, I came across an article about climate heroes, which featured a guy I was friends with online but--typical Facebook--had never actually met. In the picture accompanying the article, Billy Parish was standing in a cornfield in front of a school bus, which he had driven around the country on vegetable oil to raise awareness about clean energy. The words The Dropout were emblazoned proudly above him. This guy, I thought, he's sort of like me.
To see Billy get recognition for nontraditional work somehow made me feel like I was on the right path, made me certain the work I was doing was valid too. I had started an organization in Canada called DreamNow, which supports young people to get personally involved in fixing problems in their communities. Our tag line is "producing ideas that do good," and we have worked with people on a whole range of projects, from body image workshops to an energy-conservation campaign to turn off lights in hundreds of high school classrooms. The details of what Billy and I were doing were pretty different, but I sensed that we shared an investment in getting people personally involved in change.
I phoned my parents and told them to find the Rolling Stone article online. I'd been having this feeling that they were hoping my quest to do something meaningful would dead-end at law school. I wanted to show them someone like me was doing the kind of trailblazing work concerned less with convention than with results and that, at the very least, the editors at Rolling Stone thought it was heroic. My parents were into it, even though the thrill I felt didn't exactly transmit to them.
Two years later, I heard from Billy out of the blue. I was sitting at my desk at DreamNow, having transformed my scrappy little project into a social enterprise that had reached over 50,000 people and had raised over a million dollars for projects, as well as providing me with a good salary and the freedom to travel. When I got Billy's e-mail, I phoned back right away. We talked for about 30 minutes about the project that I had just finished through DreamNow that involved interviewing hundreds of young people and adults to figure out how to make money and change the world. I had turned up a foundation to support my research and developed the results into an e-book called Occupation: Change the World. Billy had read it and loved it.
In the half hour we talked, it was clear that we had remarkably similar ideas for what we wanted to focus on in the next few years. My research had shown me the importance of helping people find a way to get jobs that made an impact, and he had come to a similar place through his work on the climate change and Green Jobs movement. We both agreed that there was a huge need for someone to provide direction, to demystify the process, and to share the stories that we were both hearing every day. The people we each talked to and spent time with wanted to make a difference, but they didn't know how to get paid, how to build careers, how to raise families, and how to build lives without sacrificing all that they wanted. We had heard stories of Nobel Prize winners and of wildly successful outliers, but what about the rest of us?
I remember feeling hesitant the moment I realized the similarities between what Billy and I each wanted to do. I have always thought that there are two types of people--those who obsessively protect their ideas and those who share them, collaborate with others, and hustle so that no one can catch up. I'd always considered myself as a member of the latter group, but still, there was this lingering selfish question in my mind--after putting so much work into my e-book research, shouldn't I just do this myself? I knew we would be stronger together, but I didn't know how collaboration on a book would work or what it would look like, and I still felt like I was figuring it all out myself.
I left Yale during the fall semester of my junior year fully intending to come back. Seven years later, even though I was technically still "on leave," I arrived at my 5-year college reunion as a party crasher. But I didn't feel sheepish coming back. I was just excited to have a good time with some old friends. I was pained to discover just how miserable many of them were. Many of my classmates had defaulted to law school, some were living at home. A few people had cleared the high bar to get low-level jobs in the Obama administration, and they were deeply frustrated at how powerless they felt in such powerful positions.
I'd heard of the "quarterlife crisis," but what was going on with these people seemed like a more permanent problem. My friends had had all this crazy ambition and talent in college, this freewheeling ability to invent and imagine. But it seemed like they hadn't found anywhere to use it, and so for most of them, it was as if they had spent their life building and learning to fly a plane and, now that they were in the air, they didn't quite know where to land.
Over dinner in the big Commons cafeteria, I talked about this observation to my friend Laura, who had taken a job at a major New York publishing house. She pointed out that my story had been an exception to that rule: I'd found work that was challenging and meaningful and fun, and somehow I was also making a really good living doing it. She thought maybe I was in a position to help others, to speak to our generation, and she thought a book on the subject could connect with people.
Talking to Laura jarred something loose, and I started thinking about how I'd gotten started on my path, how the early choices I'd made ended up working out for the best. I had done a bunch of globalization and environmental activism in my first and second years of college and went into my junior year as one of four co-chairs of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. My three other co-chairs were focused on campus sustainability initiatives, but I wanted to organize an environmental conference for college kids across the entire Northeast. We ended up having a whole weekend of workshops, large group discussions, and late-night strategy sessions. Seventy students showed up from 30 campuses. People were excited about connecting beyond their campuses, and a core group of leaders emerged. On the final day, I pushed to create a new student network to keep us connected and allow us to run campaigns together. We formed ECO- Northeast. The conference ended with much whooping, hugging, and excited departures.
Then it all started to crumble. We found it hard to recruit new leaders who hadn't bonded at the initial conference. Other existing student networks popped up, some angrily wanting to know how the student groups we worked with at a particular campus were planning on coordinating with the student campaigns they were already supporting there. One of the networks worked with a few of the students to try to stage a coup. I felt besieged, totally unsure how I fit into this new world of student movement-building.
I actually took my first semester off to try to sort out the mess I had created. I had long conversations with all the networks that worked in the region and realized that what we needed was not another splinter in an already splintered movement. We needed a coalition to bring them all together--to allow them to develop joint campaigns, to share what they learned, to build something stronger, and to do things bigger than any of them could pull off alone. While we forged closer ties in the Northeast, the idea was spreading with new clean energy alliances forming in the Southeast, the Midwest, the West Coast, and Canada.
We started hosting conference calls with leaders from some of the campus environmental groups and decided to try an experiment: a coordinated day of action called Campus Clean Energy, with a goal of getting 25 campuses to organize events urging their administrators to power their schools with clean energy. Sixty-five campuses from across the United States and Canada signed up! We were onto something. A few months later, we tried another one- -Fossil Fools' Day on April 1, 2004--to target some of the Big Oil and Big Coal companies that were blocking the clean energy economy we wanted to help build. One hundred thirty campuses signed up this time!
Several years later, the Energy Action Coalition that arose from those conference calls was the largest youth organization in the world working to solve the climate crisis, funding 80 full-time staff across 25 coalition partner organizations to work with young people on smart, effective campaigns we designed together, with an annual budget of over $4 million.
The young people I worked with through the Energy Action Coalition didn't see their participation as a hobby. It was their life's work, except too many didn't know how to make that work pay the bills. After finishing school, they were floundering. The confident spirit they brought to their activism was broken, and a series of unsuccessful job interviews and unfulfilling short-term jobs ensued.
It was the same story for millions of people who wanted to solve the world's problems but couldn't find jobs. Youth unemployment in the United States hit an all-time high in the summer of 2009. Maybe we have to take things into our own hands, I thought. Maybe we can rebuild our society and economy from the bottom-up. From all the beautiful work I knew about that was emerging all over the country, all over the world--breakthrough solar technologies, urban farms, recycling initiatives--it seemed like that process was already underway. This is the story I wanted to tell--the story of the Grand Rebuilding.
Once I hit on that idea, I needed to tell someone. I Gchatted Courtney, an activist I'd been friends with for a long time, and she instantly gave me the kind of nudge that comes up when I'm on the right track.
BILLY: i think my next big project is going to be writing a book.
COURTNEY: wow! on what?
is it an erotic adventure novel?
BILLY: on how to make a living while saving the world...sort of a primer for people who want to be part of building the green economy. with some good sex stories woven in.
COURTNEY: do you know dev aujla?
I'd heard of him. He was a kind of mystical figure in the youth-organizing world in Canada. He was part of the main student environmental group I worked with there, the Sierra Youth Coalition, but he had also started a fashion company, ran his own nonprofit, and now, apparently, did green jobs stuff too. I Googled him and found an e-book he'd recently published on making money and changing the world. I felt an involuntary twinge of envy. He'd written everything that wasn't in the outline I had sketched for the book, all the practical nuts-and-bolts tools for personal involvement, and it was all essential stuff I wanted my readers to have.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if we might be able to team up. His e-book was the perfect companion for the book I wanted to write. I had an analysis about what was wrong with the major systems in our society--from energy to food to education--and how we should fix them. He wrote about the personal obstacles that so many young people face and gave really good practical advice about where to start. I had helped design a campaign to create 5 million green jobs through a Clean Energy Corps, part of which was passed into law, and he had been helping hundreds of young people launch themselves into careers with meaning.
With a little wave of relief that I might not have to take on such a massive project all by myself, I sent Dev an e-mail. A few hours later I got his call.
I met Billy for the first time at Penn Station. For the past year, I had been getting DreamNow going in the States, trying to build my network and living part-time in New York, and it was starting to feel like home. I remember Billy had wanted to meet in DC, where he had to head for an Energy Action meeting, but I was already a little nervous to meet him and thought it best to meet in a city I felt comfortable in, where I had a place to stay. So there I was, waiting on the corner, still not feeling 100 percent comfortable.
Billy came out of the train station carrying the kind of blue backpack I used to have in high school, and seeing his friendly familiarity put me instantly at ease. We said our hellos and started walking uptown. Somehow our conversation began with our grandparents' stories. I told him the cowboy stories of my mother's grandfather, who immigrated in the early 1900s from India to Canada to work on farms in Alberta and trade pigs for land. I told him about where my ambition came from--the stories from my paternal grandfather, who left his young family to come over from India illegally at the age of 23. He was caught by immigration officials and had to spend 16 years apart from his new family before finally being able to bring his then-16-year-old daughter and wife back to Canada.
My family had instilled in me the values that set me on my path, and I found out Billy felt the same way. I really wanted to work with him, but I had never even spent any time with him, and trusting someone with your identity and your ideas seemed like a big commitment.
We continued our conversation as we cut through Central Park, walking along the edge of the paved running and cycling path. As runners rushed by us, Billy asked me, "So Dev, what's your spirit animal?"
Oh my god, I thought. This is getting really hippie, really fast.