I admire my coworkers a lot. The way they speak to community members, the effort they put into uplifting others, and their tireless advocacy is full of sincerity that is not just caring but deliberate. This summer, I supported community organizing in Chinatown and the Greater Boston Area. I want to continue pursuing public interest work after graduation, but I don’t know if I’ll feel the same way in a few weeks. There will be law school info sessions, recruiting nights, and long phone calls home about post-graduate plans. Then, what I want to do might not seem so clear. I feel like I need to choose between serving others and making life easier for myself and my family. I don’t know if I’m ready to make that choice.
To me, the suffering and injustice in the world demand action. From the tragic mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and Chicago this past weekend, to the affordable housing crisis that forces Chinatown residents out of their homes every day, there are so many people hurting across the world. No one deserves to be a victim of gun violence, and I adamantly believe that many other harms are arbitrary and unjust as well — after all, numerous factors completely out of a person’s control like one’s race affect one’s life opportunities. When there’s so much wrong with the world, something needs to be done.
The privileges I’ve been given make me feel like I have that responsibility to do something. I didn’t do anything to deserve to be born into a financially secure family. Even accomplishments I worked hard for are not fully earned since traits like determination were given to me either by random genetic code or fortunate social circumstances. Following the principles of John Rawls, I believe undeserved advantages can only be justified if they’re treated as shared assets working towards the common good. If something needs to be done about the world’s problems, then I feel I am both well-positioned and morally obligated to do it.
But I don’t exist in a vacuum. There are people who have invested time and resources into my success, and there are people now and in the future who I may want to provide for. I feel motivated to do public interest work, but I also care deeply about my effect on and responsibility to the people that I love, and I have doubts about choosing to prioritize my ideals over their happiness.
First, I’m not sure if I can achieve much by doing public interest work, whereas I could guarantee monetary support for the people close to me by taking a higher-income job. Even this summer, I can’t say for sure that my work resulted in any clear hindrance to the wave of gentrification stripping away Chinatown’s working-class, immigrant community. But my coworkers, who continue to fight every day, made me realize that I still have an obligation to try. As an individual, I may stand no chance struggling against corporations profiting off of once-affordable housing, but the collective campaigns surrounding me have taught me that progress is possible. Movements fueled by public interest work produce meaningful steps towards relieving injustice, and regardless of my individual impact, that’s enough for me.
Second, I wonder if there is another career option that produces both social good and financial rewards — a chance to balance serving others with taking care of the people I love. Jobs in consulting, finance and tech may raise the standard of living for everyone by increasing economic efficiency and innovation, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for choosing these careers. I just worry about substitutability. The most recent senior survey found that these typically higher-income careers are the three most popular jobs after graduation. In contrast, only 6 percent — three times less than consulting — of the Class of 2019 is going into public service/nonprofit work. I question how much good I could do by trying to earn a spot in a group that is already highly-qualified and filled to capacity. Still, one might use private sector expertise as a stepping stone to a future public interest job or choose to donate a significant portion of one’s earnings to various causes. These are valid choices, but at some point, I’d have to decide whether I want to donate to a cause I believe in or save the money to take care of myself or my family.
I still need to make a choice, and ultimately, I can’t ignore the words of my parents and friends: it’s just not wrong to put the people you love first. As much as I may want to serve others, I can’t put that above the happiness of my friends and family. Now, as the summer ends, I think I know what choice I want to make.
A staff member at my workplace told me how she chose to work for the community after community members helped her wade through the pain of her own struggles. So many other staff and volunteers have similar stories — they dedicated themselves to fighting for justice because at first, it was personal. This summer, I learned that letting shared pain connect me to others does not mean sacrificing the people I care about. I don’t want to work simply so the people that I love can have successful lives, because regardless of how much money any of us have, systemic issues like racism will always hurt us. I want to work towards a world where my parents never feel ashamed to speak a different language, where my friends never need to worry about walking alone in the neighborhood they call home, and where no one can be treated as less than human.
I want to serve others because I believe it is the best way I can help myself, my family and everyone that I love. I’m thankful to my coworkers for showing me how to make that choice.
Daniel Lu ’20 is a joint concentrator in Physics and Philosophy in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.