I first fell in love with Jane Addams when I was 22 years old. I had just moved to a new city 3,000 miles away from home, trying desperately to assert myself and prove myself and find myself all at the same time. I didn’t learn til later that our early twenties are supposed to be a terrifying swirl of insecurity and self doubt. Searching, always searching, grasping for guidance as to how to live our lives.
Guidance for me came in the form of a biography of a woman who lived a century before me.
I was living in the Mission district in San Francisco, newly arrived from Vermont and just a year out of college. The Mission, at the time as now, was in a state of massive change and gentrification. My first apartment– with three of my best college friends– was on 15th and South Van Ness, nestled between a Hertz equipment rental shop and a used car dealership. The family that had lived in the apartment before us had been there for four generations. We lived there for less than two years.
It was 2008, and the financial crisis was just starting to unravel. At one point, the car dealership closed, its huge glass windows and window sills popular spots for people without homes to sleep at night. There was one gentleman in particular, who would always say “Good morning, lady!” and “Good night, lady!” to me as I passed him by. Cruelly spray painted on the window above his sleeping spot was a remnant of the final glorious and desperate days of the car dealership — a large SALE sign. “Mal credito? Sin credito? No problema!” it read.
I was, and still am, a product of my generation–earnest, solutions oriented, confident I can change the world. And so many reasons to change it. So many big problems to solve. Climate change! Homelessness! A broken political system! Economic collapse! And yet, with all this pent up passion to give myself to the world, to be of use, I felt directionless.
I hopped from one short term gig to another–a fellow at a policy think tank, a producer of an environmental tv series, an organizer on the Obama campaign. While in hindsight it was exactly what I needed to do to figure out which direction I wanted to go, at the time it felt terrifying and confusing. I felt like I was flailing — weightless, struggling to make something meaningful and potent and forceful out of my life, to make an impact on the world. Fearing, of course, everything mediocre. Fearing uselessness.
I remember thinking a lot about the lever I wanted pull in order to create the kind of change I wanted to see in the world. Business was one lever, and I was inspired by all the social entrepreneurs I knew who were working to use business models to drive social change. Politics was another, and my time on the Obama campaign doused me with an appropriate amount of “fired up and ready to go!” to understand how powerful politics could be. And yet both seemed so far removed from the man I passed by every day sleeping by the car dealership window.
It’s fitting that I first met Jane Addams at a meeting of a group called Young Women Social Entrepreneurs. Someone had invited Louise Knight, a top Addams biographer, to come speak to our group about Addams’ life.
So there we met, Jane Addams and me. I found her utterly remarkable. An advocate for the poor. A community organizer. A philosopher. An entrepreneur. A political powerhouse. She was a force behind the scenes of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912, a fierce pacifist during World War I and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931– all while continuing to do direct service work as the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, building a community of folks from different backgrounds committed to making the neighborhood in Chicago where they worked and lived better.
I read one biography, hungrily underlining and highlighting and making notes. “What a badass!” reads one comment. “How do you balance moral complexity and nuance in a time that demands conviction?” asks another. I read another biography. And another. Then devoured all her philosophical writings. It turns out she was a colleague of John Dewey and all the American pragmatists and could stand her ground in philosophical arguments with the best of them– even arguing once with Tolstoy on the merits of his ascetic lifestyle.
What was so compelling to me was this: she was not just preaching ethics and philosophy with her pen in some ivory tower– she was out living her values, every day. And living them not just as a social worker, directly making the lives around her better, but as a political advocate. She understood the political context in which the problems of her neighborhood, and country, were happening. She understood political power.
Without the context of politics, sometimes “doing good” can seem simple. Build homes for people who need houses. Feed people who need food. But doing good is not simple. If I’ve learned anything in my short career in the social impact sector it is that. It’s complex and hard and scary and the real solutions are often so different than what they look like on the surface.
What impressed me most about Jane Addams’ life and work is that she was able to address and incorporate the social, economic, political and philosophical challenges of her day into her life’s work. She understood that the plight of the homeless guy on South Van Ness is connected to economic and political arguments about budgets and markets and labor strikes and capitalism.
And, she was able to find and wield her own power. All while being an unmarried, perhaps queer woman at a time when women rarely found such power outside of their husbands.
I sometimes have this sudden realization that I am utterly and incomprehensibly alone. I feel like one tiny datapoint floating through this sea of humanity, of lives already passed and those yet to begin– one life out of so many that all want to be unique and accomplished and morally just and useful and accepted and respected and loved. In these moments I seek guidance from other people’s lives, looking towards history, to lives that have already been lived and completed and judged. Trying, of course, to find that firm thing to hold on to– guidance to how to live my life.
This blog is a testament to how much Jane Addams life inspires and guides me. I will explore different aspects of her writing, life and legacy, using it as lens to look at my life as a young woman trying to make some sort of impact in the world. She wasn’t a saint. She had flaws, some personal, some of her era, and I’ll explore those too. And maybe even get to some of my own flaws, and those of this era.
So here goes.