Impactful: Active Engagement with Key Social Issues
Below is an excerpt from Meaning Making: 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations. Follow along on the blog for more excerpts, check out the additional resources on our Meaning Making page, and buy the book here.
Earlier in this chapter, we met Avery—a young woman hoping to spend her high school education being impactful. In addition to all the things one would expect to receive during high school (like the chance to encounter new ideas, try new activities, or make friends), she would also be able to engage wider social and environmental issues. She wanted her high school experience to do more than meet these basic expectations. She wanted it to provide opportunities for thinking beyond the walls of high school, academics, or sports.
Practicing the value of social responsibility means actively engaging key social issues. For an organization, that means a willingness to talk about and do more than what’s expected—it means a willingness to take responsibility for making a positive impact in ways that might be slightly outside its typical “lane.” A school’s typical lane is education; a clothing company’s usual lane is garments; for a church, synagogue, or mosque, that lane is often gathering a community of faith together for worship. But what if a church sought to be impactful outside its traditional “lane”?
Ascension Lutheran Church in South Burlington, Vermont, tries to live the value of being impactful. Though people may gather with one set of common values in mind—belief in particular creedal commitments, a desire for ritual, community, and connection to something bigger than themselves—Ascension does not stop there. Rev. Dr. Nancy Wright, the leader of the congregation, “sees herself as a pastor, a shepherd, and yet also as a seeker with other people for God’s presence and love. She is especially interested in where God wants the church to bring healing in situations of poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation,” one online biography writes.
Wright brings this environmental sensibility to her role as pastor of the congregation. Beginning in 2010, Ascension took on a project to clean up part of the local watershed, Bartlett Brook. The three-year project became the basis for a different kind of thinking about what churches are called to do, and Ascension developed a manual for other churches and organizations to begin their own “Watershed Discipleship.”
The Congregational Watershed Discipleship Manual, coauthored by Wright and Richard Butz, describes the impact and import of this kind of commitment to do good in the world:
Caring for water orients a congregation in a new and deep way to its social, cultural, and ecological community, while also positioning it to develop supportive ties to other congregations and groups in the area to foster watershed health. When a congregation cares for its local watershed, it potentially promotes awareness and action to ameliorate worldwide water justice issues, including climate change and the feminization of poverty, both of which reflect and create water justice issues.
And Ascension is having a wider impact: Wright is the environmental liaison for her regional denomination. The activities of her church have been spotlighted and praised by those invested in the earth’s wellbeing and the church’s thriving. By taking the demands of social responsibility seriously, Ascension Lutheran Church is expanding what church can mean and do.
Recall that more than 50% of the young people we surveyed agree that organizations have a responsibility to contribute some good to the world; nearly 60% hold themselves to the same standard of making a positive impact. Our research also shows that more than 70% of young people ages 13-25 say it is important to them that organizations they are a part of intentionally work toward environmental sustainability. In addition, 55% agree it is important to them personally to look after the environment and care for nature to save life and resources.
Organizations that commit to something greater than just what’s expected—that insist on active engagement with key social issues—are organizations young people support. This may look like care for the earth from a faith community, or it may look like help providing childcare for single parents at a corporate work environment. It might look like workshops on race and gender identity with volunteers at a food bank, or it may look like efforts to create inclusive educational environments for those who are other-abled in physical and intellectual ways. Engaging key social issues head-on, in addition to whatever good work, service, or product you are already providing, is a crucial part of being impactful. And being impactful is an essential qualification for earning the respect of young people today.