Pulitzer Prize winning journalist encourages social activism

by Marlena Chertock, April 12, 2010

America is considered the land of equal opportunity. But in reality, chances are not always evenly spread out. On Tuesday night for Elon University’s Honors Convocation, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist described how to generate more widespread opportunity.

The New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof encouraged students to leave their comfort zones and involve themselves in social change.

Kristof said people often turn away from altruistic projects because of the depressing situations they might become aware of or witness. He said he has seen terrible events in his reporting, such as young girls being kidnapped and forced into brothels. But he said what he finds inspiring is when people persevere in spite of that adversity.

He said some of these girls who were forced into being sex slaves later got involved in activism to help others like them.

“What I find depressing is coming back to this country, and the only way people express themselves is with hot cars or the latest cell phone,” he said.

The other trouble people have with helping others is that they sometimes doubt whether their work will really make a difference, according to Kristof.

“I think we’re getting better at finding out what does make a difference,” he said.

Kristof said people “always yearn for big overarching solutions that will solve” problems like global sex trafficking, illiteracy or starvation. But it is those who work not to solve problems fully, but to chip away at them, who get farther, he said.

He said social entrepreneurship projects, such as former Secretary of Education Wendy Kopp’s work that ultimately became Teach For America—an organization that recruits college graduates to commit two years to teach in low-income communities—are successes that started out small. Another organization, Unite for Sight, was developed to help workers in other countries who rely on their eyesight for jobs such as embroidery. The organization donates eyeglasses to workers. Kristof said this gives people a better chance to earn income.

Another question people ask themselves when they help others is why they should care, according to Kristof. He said getting involved in a cause that is larger than themselves can offer an answer. It offers meaning to life and an extra measure of happiness, according to Kristof.

Kristof said the faculty and students involved in the Honors Convocation “have won the lottery of life,” which gives them more responsibility to promote change and help others.

A way to truly instill change is to get involved in movements for social entrepreneurships. These movements and organizations are made up of people in every walk of life who work in creative ways, Kristof said.

This work does not have to happen through a profession, according to Kristof. Social activism can occur throughout life.

“You don’t have to be Mother Teresa,” he said. But America and the world do need to “work to get opportunities as spread out as talent is.”