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Jonathan Lewis

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Do Not Copy/Paste Someone Else's Life

Posted: 09/05/2012 11:02 am

"If there is one word that defines what I really care about, it is justice. I named my son Adili. It means ethical, just and fair in Swahili."


Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, 34, is the mother of three-year-old Adili, a wife of ten years, an American political science professor and the CEO of Kenya-based Akili Dada, which she founded in 2005 to advance African women into leadership positions. She was recently honored by the White House as a "champion of change."

Multitasking rock star that she is, with brutal candor she owns up to her shortcomings: "I accept being mediocre. I am not perfect. Even if I focused on just one or two things, I still would not be perfect at them."

As the psychologist and philosopher William James famously noted, "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." From talking with Wanjiru in front of the iOnPoverty.tv cameras, I would add wisdom includes knowing what never to overlook.

"We have forgotten to acknowledge when we hold power. We act as if money doesn't matter. That's really dishonest." Personal security and earning a decent salary underpin successful social entrepreneurs. Don't be "so miserable that the people you purport to help would rather you were not in their lives," she says with straightforward matter-of-factness.

You are most efficient, effective and reach people deeply when you're acting from a place of self-consciousness and self-awareness. It's about trying to heal the world from what you [personally have] experienced. It is not about 'the other who is poor.'

To newcomers to economic justice work, she advises, "Learn everything you can, identify the things you care about and then get started. Don't wait for permission."

Embrace the human contradictions that characterize every change agent. She reports with an arching grin, "I spend all day running an organization empowering young women and relax at night by reading novels about women who get carted off into the sunset by burly men."

Honestly, my family always gets the short end of the stick, but I have an amazing husband. I think Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is right: the most important choice a woman makes for her career is whom she marries.

It's all worth it, but do I have doubts? Yes. I go through moments of doubt, but the calculation is where your life brings the most value to the world.

The most useless people are people driven by guilt. The most useful people are driven by a sense of abundance.


As a little girl in Kenya, Wanjiru didn't aspire to a professorship in political science. She dreamed of being a pilot, a doctor or... wait for it... Madonna.

"Do not copy/paste someone else's life." Advice for every social entrepreneur, every one of us.

 

Follow Jonathan Lewis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/iOnPoverty

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