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Jessica R. Dreistadt Headshot

From Charity to Justice to Love: My Professional Odyssey

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I stumbled my upon career with nonprofit organizations quite by accident. When investigating MBA programs, I happened to notice an interesting concentration at one school: nonprofit management. Thinking that sounded much more interesting than finance or human resources, I decided to pursue my degree in that field. A moment's whim snowballed into a 15-year long successful career that continues today.

Most of my work has been with public charities. My first job after college was working at a shelter for women and children in Philadelphia. It was soon evident to me that the concept of charity was not fully congruent with my values. Charities are designed to fill an unfortunate, and some may argue unnecessary, gap in our social-economic system. Yet, the work of charities is highly individualized. One person (or entity) gives through an organization to ultimately give to another person or group of people. The givers are presumed superior, not only financially but morally as well. Recipients are seen as incomplete, inferior, and in need of change. The organization that is the conduit for this gift prescribes how the recipients ought to live, attempting to conform the recipients to the values and priorities of the givers which are often shared by the organization. Absent from this scenario, described here in admittedly oversimplistic terms, is an interrogation and reconstruction of the system that created the need for the charity and perhaps even justifies its continued existence.

Early in my career I became strongly attracted to justice work or the justice aspects of charitable work. Through this work, I could prescribe not how people ought to live when their choices are limited by a system that is often weighted against them, but how systems ought to be designed so that all people have real options available that they may flourish. While being proactive in this way seemed more useful and ultimately effective in creating real social changes, I also felt and experienced a tempestuous anger in the field. Awareness of the world's injustices, their intricacy and their interconnection, is maddening. This work gave me a means, and an excuse, to constructively express the deep anger I feel as a result of the many personal injustices that I have experienced. As my awareness grew, so did the targets for my wrath.

True connection, dialogue, and understanding are missing from both the charity and justice prototypes as described above. Both models are based on judgment, prescription, and dominance. Both assume that there is one right answer -- an illusory perfection that none of us can truly claim to exemplify.

As I prepare to enter the fifth decade of my life, I want to let go of charity and justice work to be a love worker. Not one who sells my body or even my ideas, but one who generously shares my heart with the world so that it may heal and blossom. If charity work is individualistic and justice work is systemic, then loving light work is universal. It is a continual embodiment and enactment of freely shared purposeful love that creates a new world order where the highest value is placed on the gifts of the heart.

In the everyday material world in which we live, very real individual and social inequities exist. To ignore this would be to shut down our hearts and deny our love. Charity is needed. Justice work is needed. But they both need our consistent unconditional love.