THE BLOG
11/29/2010 02:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wall Street or Social Activism?

When I mentioned to a college friend that I was considering careers with organizations that focus on poverty reduction, she rolled her eyes and said, "You know, being a Wall Street banker is just as socially useful as being a social activist."

Growing up in an extended family of Fox News-watching conservatives, I've learned that there are some arguments that are so absurd that they're simply not worth arguing against. Every Thanksgiving, I brace myself for a discussion about how college professors are "brainwashing" America's youth, and how George Soros is "evil." I just try to keep quiet, and wait for someone to start talking about how awful the apple pie is. But what struck me about the conversation with my college friend was that I was talking with a liberal Democrat. It jolted me -- does our generation really put such a low value on social activism?

In the last few decades, an emphasis on social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility has managed to make large corporations look benign, and even benevolent. Certainly, the donations that the MAC Foundation has made to AIDS relief, or the millions that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have spent improving education in America, have been extraordinary examples of the potential of corporate money to do tremendous good. Consumer buying power has also been realigned as a force for positive change -- we can now buy "fair trade" coffee, organic yogurt, and locally farmed produce at a multitude of farmer's markets.

These days, causes that promote social justice appeal to many students, but mainly for their resumé-building potential. Invariably, college students talk as much or more about how Teach for America is a good career move, than about any desire to be lifelong teachers. When I started an economic development organization at Columbia this year, I found that it is much easier to recruit students if I mention the business skills they will develop.

The burgeoning international microfinance movement has relied, in large part, on corporate donations. Hailed as the great answer to economic development for the last 20 years, these microfinance organizations can translate corporate dollars into millions of individual $20 loans to small business owners in Bangladesh or Kenya -- loans which can completely turn lives around. However, it has been proven that microfinance only works when its guiding principle is social justice. The most effective microfinance organizations focus on empowering economically disenfranchised communities by also providing technical assistance, child care opportunities, women's support networks, and financial training, in addition to providing loans. Recent research has shown that microfinance organizations that are not focused primarily on community empowerment -- and only offer monetary loans -- are the ones that eventually fail.

The assertion that Wall Street is as socially useful as activism is categorically false. (Just check out last week's New Yorker.) The simple point is that Wall Street does not create or produce anything other than large sums of money, and that these profits do not give most people the opportunity to live better lives. One of our family friends lives on a hillside in Vermont, grows almost all of her own food, and runs an organization that teaches art and dance to victims of domestic violence. She has absolutely the best lifestyle of anyone I have ever met, and an evening at her house is an unrivaled inspiration. The dirty little secret is -- we do not need television, Blackberries, or Kindles in order to live happy, fulfilled lives.

Do we still need individuals who push for social change? Of course we do. Our generation faces more problems than ever. There are now more enslaved workers than there were during the Atlantic Slave trade (27 million at last count). In America, the poverty rate is upwards of 14 percent, and in many school districts, 50 percent of kids don't graduate from high school. We need a generation of committed, smart leaders to tackle these problems, and make our country, and our world, better. Many of the students graduating from college this year will choose careers in consulting or finance. That is to be expected. But to pretend that they will be providing as great a service to humanity as social activists is completely disingenuous. What our world needs, and has always needed, are individuals who place more value on reform than on profit margins.