As Rebecca’s come to learn over the years, a key pillar of radical self-care when it comes to doing social justice work (and, really, life in general) is—to paraphrase jazz legend Thelonious Monk—finding the technique that’s relevant for you, versus mirroring the status quo for the sake of fitting in. And there are few leaders in the economic justice movement who epitomize this kind of be-your-eccentric-self-without-apology genius to the extent that our next guest Alex Lawson does. As you’ll hear in this episode, Alex wears a lot of hats, including executive director of Social Security Works, which has for years been at the forefront of the movement to expand Social Security; he’s also one of the founders and co-owners of We Act Radio, one of the radio stations that broadcasts this very show over the airwaves. Rebecca and Alex had a far-ranging conversation about what it means to find the technique that’s relevant for you in the context of social justice work—and how this shows up in the context of radical self-care.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. And every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And as we continue Off-Kilter’s series of conversations with leaders across the economic justice movement, digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, “self-care is political warfare,” and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work, I had a ton of fun sitting down with our next guest in this series, who’s a dear friend and colleague and one of the most innovative and fearlessly creative advocates I know. As I’ve come to learn over the years, a key pillar of radical self-care when it comes to doing social justice work—and really, honestly, life in general—is, to paraphrase jazz legend Thelonious Monk, finding the technique that’s relevant for you. As the story goes, Monk, as a brilliant, if unconventional musician, was told early on he didn’t have the right technique or even any technique when it came to playing piano because he played differently from his contemporaries and went his own way to create his own unique sound. The thing is, as Robin D.G. Kelley argues in a definitive biography on the jazz legend—which you can find out more about in show notes for folks inspired to go down that rabbit hole—it’s not that Monk lacked technique. He’d studied classical piano for years. It’s that instead of replicating how he was taught to play, Monk pioneered his own technique, the one that was relevant for him.
So, bringing us back to radical self-care, the metaphor I’m drawing up here is probably self-evident. And there are few leaders in the economic justice movement who epitomize this kind of be-your-eccentric-self-without-apology genius to the extent that our next guest, Alex Lawson, does. As you’ll hear, Alex wears a lot of hats, including serving as executive director of an organization called Social Security Works, which has for years been at the forefront of the movement to expand Social Security. He’s also one of the co-owners of We Act Radio, one of the anchor stations that broadcasts this very show over the airwaves. And those are just two examples. There are more. We had a far-ranging conversation about what it means to find the technique that’s relevant for you in the context of social justice work and how this shows up in the context of radical self-care. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Alex Lawson, thank you for taking the time to come back on the show! And I have to say, as much fun as I have getting to work with you in a variety of different ways, it’s been a long time since we had you on the podcast.
ALEX LAWSON: It has been. It’s been too long, so thank you for inviting me back on.
VALLAS: Well, it’s my total pleasure, and I always love being in conversation with you, whether it is for a podcast or whether it’s just shooting the stuff, we will say, so that Troy doesn’t have to start bleeping things out in the first few minutes. But before we get into this conversation, I wanna give you the chance to talk a little bit about how you come to social justice work. You are far from a conventional or a one-dimensional policy advocate, and that’s a big part of why I thought you were perfect to have this conversation with. But share a little bit of your origin story. Who is Alex Lawson? How do you come to this work?
LAWSON: It’s definitely a radioactive spider. No.
LAWSON: So, I don’t know. I’ve interrogated this a lot, and I think the only question I have for where it comes from, I don’t know. Obviously, my family believing in me and giving me so much support is a key part of it. But both my parents, my mother is extremely right wing. She’s Brazilian and grew up under the dictatorship and thought that was just great. So, like a Bolsonaro type, very smart, also right-wing Republican. My father’s conservative. He’s not a Republican because he can’t stand how stupid the party’s got. But it was not directly from my parents, but obviously, has everything to do with my parents, too. So, I go to therapy to try to interrogate that as well.
VALLAS: Don’t we all?
LAWSON: We can go to the next part ‘cause I’m pretty certain after, right, things are a little bit formed. I have a deep moral conviction that comes from I was raised Catholic. And I enjoyed a lot of parts of the church, and I abhorred other parts of it. So, basically, the progressive help-poor-people parts, I was like, yeah, that makes sense. And then the retrograde… stuff that basically has you believe that Jesus came down and said, “Hate gays” and “Peace. I’m out,” I was like, that’s just stupid. So, I was in a place where I had a deep commitment, but I also was struggling with what it meant because I hated the institution as well and the contradictions in it.
But I did find a vein that I mined very deeply, which was liberation theology. Liberation theology’s tenet of a preferential option of the poor and faith through acts today to materially benefit people’s condition of living now, in terms of helping to find them find a spiritual perfection as well, that really spoke to me. And the sacrifice and martyrdom of standing up to these fascists. ‘Cause in the history of liberation theology, these are the nuns and the priest, Saint Oscar Romero, who were assassinated by the right-wing fascists in South America. And so, that was where I sort of had a lot of my identity. But I was really still trying to figure out okay, well, how do I do that?
After college, I was reading this National Geographic article about migrant sugar cane workers and the horrendous conditions that they were kept in, which was basically like slavery in Florida. And in looking into it, I found, you know, I was like, okay, I wanna figure out how to help in that area. And at the time, I still had these very grandiloquent—is that the word, Vallas? But whatever—I was in the like, we got to save the world! That’s where I thought we were. But I was young, and I hadn’t done that much. But I do like my thought at the time, looking back. But looking around, I was like, okay, I’m gonna find something that helps people closest to the people that I was reading about. And I found a clinic in Chicago called Heartland Health Outreach, and they served very, very poor populations, active drug users, active mental health issues, homeless. And then had worked with this other place, the Kovler Center, which worked with victims of state sponsored torture and trafficked individuals and gave, and the clinic gave health care, right? So, it was like a health care provider for these populations. And in my brain, I was like, that’s a perfect fit because the mantra of a preferential option for the poor and liberation theology and then heal the sick, care for the downtrodden, feed the hungry being the sort of guiding principles. So, then I went down and started working in a clinic. And I don’t know, Vallas, if you want to redirect from there, but I can tell you that that’s where I learned, like that’s where the real world crashed into my belief system. And it wasn’t as simple as like, oh, I realize that things are really hard, but I did realize that too.
VALLAS: Yeah, no, and that’s like, I really appreciate just the way you’re telling that story, but also the evolution of you as a human with evolving awareness over time and through experience of how you fit into and are connected to the mission that you had some semblance of wanting to be connected to but needed to sort of find that real-world foot in the door. I feel like that’s a lot of the conversations I have with folks who are students and are looking to break into this work. And I feel like it’s a great place to start you sharing that level of detail I really appreciate.
So, I am gonna take us now into present day. I mentioned you are far from a conventional or a one-dimensional policy advocate. And it’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with being conventional or one-dimensional as a policy advocate, you just happen to be the opposite of that. You wear a ton of hats. Some of them are public policy related and advocacy related. Some of them are media related. You also have started a lot of different things. You’ve been something of an entrepreneur throughout your career. So, to properly lay the foundation for this conversation, before we get into the radical self-care components of it, I wanna ask you to just talk a little bit about each of the hats that you wear right now for folks who might not be familiar with your work or for maybe folks who might be familiar with one piece of your work, but who aren’t aware that you wear all these different hats.
LAWSON: It’s a lot of hats, Vallas. I’m gonna have to, you’ll have to let me know if I’m missing something. But the main thing is that it all does circle around one goal encompassed in Social Security Works, where I’m the executive director. And at Social Security Works, policy wise, we fight to protect and expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and to lower prescription drug prices. But I think more important is philosophically, our mission is a continuation of Frances Perkins in setting up the New Deal and all of what that encompassed, including Social Security. But it was much broader, and it was acknowledged at the time. Like when FDR signed the Social Security Act into law, he said, let this law be a cornerstone that we continue building on. So, what Frances Perkins and the New Dealers were building, and everyone knew it at the time, it wasn’t one discrete program that had, you know, that started and stopped in a certain place. It was an ever-expanding system of economic security for everyone in this country. And it knowingly did not accomplish that in one. It was not sufficient to provide economic security for everyone, and it certainly did not provide for everyone. But over time, people who were excluded in the beginning were added. Things were added to it. So, disability was added to it, the benefits were increased, and basically, each generation has done its part to build upon this system.
And you get to the ‘80s when things—I’ll keep using the word “retrograde” ‘cause I enjoy it—hit a retrograde motion and start going the other way with Reagan and Thatcher and neoliberalism and the idea that, the ridiculous idea that, government can’t do things on its own, and only private industry can, which is so far from the truth. But we don’t have to go after that too much. But the reason that things in this world are sort of there’s so many hats, Rebecca, is I wanted to lay out that that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to foster, create, advocate an ever-expanding system of economic security. And what that means is we’re fighting to raise the minimum wage ‘cause you can’t have security with low wages. So, we’re taking on all the corporations there. We’re fighting to cancel all student debt ‘cause you can’t have economic security if you’re saddled with outrageous debt to get an education. So, we’re taking on Wall Street and big money there. You can’t have economic security without guaranteed health care. If you can go bankrupt because you got sick or hurt, then there’s no economic security. So, we need guaranteed health care for every single person in this country. So, we’re taking on Big Pharma, Big Hospital, Big Insurance.
And pretty quickly, it’s pretty clear that the work that I want to do is in direct opposition to most of the most powerful industries who have a real good track record of defeating, co-opting, destroying their opposition. And the way they do that is manifold. So, they have to do everything. They have lots of money, so they hire lots of different people to do it. We have to sort of be able to match them in places. So, you’re never gonna get, for example, the whole truth about why the Republicans want to cut Social Security so badly on the corporate media, because the corporate media are the same people who want to cut Social Security so badly! It is the billionaire class. You’re not gonna get good information about why drug prices are so high and how hard we’re getting ripped off when every single ad in the corporate media is a pharmaceutical ad, right?! The corporate media is the pharmaceutical industry.
So, the being able to tell our own stories was something that came up really early on in my analysis or diagnosis of what needed to exist for me to be able to accomplish the mission of Social Security Works. That’s why I started We Act Radio, which is a radio and television production company on the banks of the Anacostia and the radical side of Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast Washington, DC, and where we know each other through the show from. And I think everything makes sense when you remember what Social Security Works is trying to do, and that our opponents will oppose and try to co-opt us from every single angle. And so, all the things that, all the hats that I wear are things so that I can keep pushing that advocacy mission.
VALLAS: I love how you wove that all together, because it’s easy to be like, “Oh my God, this is a bunch of different hats. Here’s a dude who is running an organization that has to do with Social Security and has that in its name, but also who owns a radio station?” And I feel like sometimes when I’m trying to explain you to someone else—not that I could ever try to explain you adequately ‘cause you’re a complex human being—but any time I’m trying to explain who you are and how you’re connected to something that we might be working on together, I feel like I often get the reaction like, “Wait, wait, wait. He runs an organization, and he has a radio and a TV operation?!” Right? And you just you summed that up beautifully, right? It’s not, they’re not separate missions. It’s actually multiple modalities through which you express and organize other people and resources in service of that shared goal. And someday you and I will get matching tattoos that say, “Hazards and vicissitudes,” but we can talk about that another time.
So, this is a great segue then into where I wanted to go with this conversation and a big part of why I wanted to have you on the air instead of just being one of the people who is the reason that this podcast exists because of your We Act Radio role. And so, as we are having a series of conversations with leaders across the economic justice space to talk about what is radical self-care, how does it show up in people’s lives—and there’s a lot of different perspectives on this, and we’re defining that very broadly, as folks have heard in our first two episodes of this season—I feel like this might be a surprising next episode or a surprising next spin on this radical self-care conversation to some people. But as I’ve come to learn over the years, after a long stretch of my own life where I felt immense pressure to hide really huge parts of myself, to fit in, to be like everyone else, I’ve come to learn that part of radical self-care is actually being your whole self and bringing your whole self into the work. And this is a big part of why I wanted to talk with you for this particular season, because honestly, Alex, there are few people in this work and whom I’ve gotten to work with in this work who epitomize this to the extent that you do. And I mean that as the highest compliment I could possibly offer. So, I’m gonna turn it to you and ask, how does this land with you in the context of a conversation about radical self-care, the notion of being your whole self in the work? And I also just wanna note that phrase, “being your whole self,” right, it gets used at this point at a level where it’s actually become almost a cliché. We probably have a little bit of definitional work to do around it. But where does that take you, and how does that show up for you in how you show up in the work?
LAWSON: Well, that’s a good one, isn’t it? So, I think there’s a lot to this. And I wanna start with one acknowledgment, which is that, I mean, I have a lot of privilege or whatever it is. And I also had to get, you know, I had to get into the grind as well. And so, it is true that at points, you do have to fit into some system if you’re trying to change it. I’m just thinking when I was younger, just stepping from working in outreach HIV clinics over into politics, I…. Actually, you know where I learned some of this is I’m sort of a like jeans and ironic t-shirt wearing guy with tattoos, but I would organize in church basements on HIV policy in the District of Columbia. And I wouldn’t dress up, and afterwards, and I’m going into Anacostia and I’m organizing. And we did some really great work. It’s actually where I met my business partner, Kymone Freeman, who I then go on to start We Act Radio with. But this really wonderful woman, an older woman who goes to church a lot, she just pulled me aside and she said, “You might not know it, but you’re really insulting everyone when you show up here in a t-shirt and jeans. We dress up to go to church. So, it’s not to do with you. It’s to do with respect of where you’re going.” And so, I was like, okay, yep. Makes perfect sense to me. And so, from that point on, I’d put on a suit when I’d go and organize in church basements. And so, I want to be clear that that’s not what you’re talking about. You do have to, in this work, you have to meet people where they are. I’ve used like 17 clichés already, but cultural competency includes that kind of respect.
Now, to sort of get to your question, I do think at this point in my career where I am the executive director, I do own We Act Radio, I tend to not care [chuckles conspiratorially] too much about what people think about me, and so I don’t try to tell a story of me that’s different than who I am. Also, I’m just like, first of all, it’s exhausting to try to keep things straight if you’re trying to do that. It’s very, if your identity as shown to the world is really different than who you are, there is a psychic tax that you’re paying all the time, and it will burn you out. ‘Cause you’re having to do actual work in your brain above and beyond just doing the work that’s in front of you all the time.
And also, a lot of the conforming sort of things are actually ways of people, money controlling people. So, like funders and major donors and stuff, I feel like a big problem in left organizing is that everything is done sort of searching after money from major donors and foundations. And we love each and every one of them that gives us money. This isn’t about them. This is about everyone who doesn’t give us money. I’m just kidding. It’s about all of them. But that is why I started a consulting company that just donates all of our money over to Social Security Works. So, I didn’t know it before, but there’s We Act Radio, there’s Social Security Works, there’s Strategy & Hustle. And Strategy & Hustle is a business that we run, a super successful business, if I do pat myself on the back. But that’s to replace major donors and make me not have to ask foundations for money. So, I think that might’ve all been a preamble, Vallas, to say it’s not easy to do, to just show up always as your authentic self, because a lot of the stuff that you have to do that’s difficult is actually based on the systems that we’re trying to dismantle and replace. So, I would just urge people not to get frustrated off the bat. It is hard. It’s really, really hard to work for justice, especially because there’s a whole world. The majority of the systems, they don’t care at all about justice. And so, people can succeed very quickly by doing the exact wrong thing. So, that tension that it is, it’s a slow, a slower grind, and it’s very real.
So, now, what do I get to do to show up as myself? I do try to make it pretty clear who I am really early so people aren’t shocked later. And I think, you tell me Vallas, but mainly, it’s like being really honest about what I am trying to do and how I’m trying to do it and not wasting too, too much time on sort of like, I don’t know, the niceties? I don’t really know how to explain it more than saying it’s actually really hard. So, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to give everyone a roadmap of how to get there in short order. I mean, you know how hard it is because you went through it all. It’s a very big process.
VALLAS: It is. And I wanna dig into it and make it a little bit more real. So, I’m gonna pull on a few of those threads. And I appreciate on so many levels the nuance you brought into that response, but also just not hiding that this is hard, right? None of these conversations that we’re having in this season, I think, are, nobody’s coming in being like, “This was super easy for me! [laughing] This came on day one,” right? This is stuff that people spend entire lifetimes trying to master. So, I appreciate you situating this conversation in that understanding.
So, I love that you told the story about the not having a suit on in the church basement, right? Because part of where I was also gonna take this is that the notion of the serious black suit that like, all of them look the same, that is, there’s a reality to it. And I was gonna bring that up, but I was also gonna bring it up because there’s also a, there’s sort of a metaphorical element to the suit, the very serious black suit being kind of representative of a larger cultural expectation that I wanna dig into a little bit with you as well as we pull on some of these threads. So, I’m gonna hark back to that serious black suit with appreciation for you telling the story you told that it’s not to say that we never wear suits, right, or that it’s never appropriate. And cultural competency is absolutely the thing to be centering and being aware of as we think about not just how we speak, but also how we show up and what that looks like in various spaces.
But coming back to the serious black suit. There is a lot of pressure, especially in DC, inside the Beltway, but I think this is true in a lot of different professional spaces, and especially ones where people are engaged in, say, policy work or law work or law reform work, a ton of pressure that is often tangible, to wear the black suit, the serious black suit, almost like it’s armor, right, to show that one fits in. And that’s where I’m bringing it in as sort of having a metaphorical element as well, because it isn’t just about the clothes. There’s a cultural element that it represents. And I wanna say, I remember the first time that you and I met and how just totally, totally, completely different you were Alex, from anyone I had yet met in DC. This is before I lived in DC. I was still a legal aid lawyer, but I was coming to DC all the time on the train from Philly because Social Security disability benefits were on the chopping block, and I was one of the folks who was kind of organizing advocates to try to prevent that from happening. And the good guys won. The bad guys lost. But that’s for another conversation.
And I remembered meeting you in some kind, I think we were actually at a Hill meeting together before we even got to know each other in the radio context. And you were just like this dude who was confidently his own unique archetype. I can’t think of any other way to put that. And you just radiated this, like, “I don’t care about trying to be like all the serious black suit wearers,” even though everybody else in the meeting had on a black suit and was doing the like, we’re all hoping we’re fitting in thing. And it was notable enough to me that I actually remember that moment to this day, even though you and I’ve become friends and spent a lot of time together since that.
And so, I bring that story up as we sort of wanna dig into this, ‘cause it’s not just about the clothes. You started to get into this, but the like, knowing who you are and being comfortable showing up as who you are without having what people think about you being the first thing you think about in workspaces was what was so clear to me even before I knew you on a personal level. And part of, as I’m saying, that’s part of what comes through is the famous inscription above the Oracle at Delphi, right? “Know thyself,” right? It feels like sort of the first step to this. And so, I’m curious if you feel like there’s a story you can tell or maybe it’s a progression over time, or maybe it’s either anecdotes that you wanna bring in of how did you find yourself? And how did you come to know who you are in contrast to the conditioning and the here’s all the things you need to be to fit in in this work world? Did that come easily? Was that just how you were born and showed up in this life? I’m curious if you have more you can share for folks who might be wanting to hear this and say, “How do I learn from this guy who is so comfortable being who he is,” yes, at this point in your career, which you’ve already disclosed, comes with a certain significant level of privilege, given that you’re already at the executive director level.
LAWSON: Yeah, I love this conversation. It’s way harder than policy ones, but I think ‘cause I do spend, as a middle-aged professional, I do spend a lot of time examining my life. I also got my undergraduate degree in philosophy, so I do believe in the benefits of the examined life. And I think that what I opened the show with is actually relevant to this question. And we all, no, not everyone, but I at least shy away from grandiloquent descriptions of myself, I believe. But I will, just trying to be honest about why I had, you know, in that first meeting. ‘Cause I think I could’ve been in the suit, and you probably would’ve still had the same thing, because I think the big thing is that I am really clear why I’m doing what I’m doing. And it was based on that moral, or ethical, but the understanding that I am driven by a personal belief in a purpose in the preferential option for the poor. And I have, through a lot of work, come to understand that much more deeply, but I’ve never lost sight.
So, I worked in outreach HIV clinics, and I learned to hate pharma with all of my being as clients would die and other clients would be harmed because of these policies. And I learned what policy was and that the pharmaceutical corporations had just corrupted all of the process. So, I was like, I’m gonna go to DC and learn this stuff and change it! So, when I came to get my Master’s in DC, I was clear why I was getting my Master’s, what was the driving force there. And I will say it was fun because I learned a lot. I was like, I know exactly what I wanna do, and obviously I didn’t. I learned a lot along the way, and I got my Master’s at GW in policy. And I, though, even though you learn things and you react to new information and new inputs, I never did lose the why. And that kept me always safe from sort of I think something that you’re getting at that is really real, which is like, people who are, let’s just make it caricature like, but they’re supposedly doing the, you know, they’re doing work in service of justice, but they’re terrible people, right? And you sort of wonder, you’re like, what? How did that happen? Why wouldn’t you just go work on like, with the extractive industries or the NRA? Like, why would you?
And I think part of that is that it’s easy to forget the why. It’s easy to forget the why and actually focus just on the myriad of inputs that we get that tell us how we’re doing, like a real-life video game score, right? Like our salary, our title, our standing with people who we believe are important, and whatever system we’re in is telling us like, oh, these are the important people. So, that’s generally not coming from us. It’s coming from outside, these outside indicators. And I do think part of my armor has always been—I’m gonna probably end with something that you won’t like very much, Vallas, but we’ll see—that I know why I’ve come here and unfortunately, or whatever. It doesn’t bother me. I will say a lot of it is how much I hate pharma, how much I absolutely hate private equity and Wall Street that are willing to kill, harm, just lie, deceive, steal. They’ll do anything and especially to the most vulnerable of people in order to make money. I literally hate that. And that hate is very clarifying. So, it is something that I can use as a compass type thing. You can always take the other side of hate and say that’s your compass north if you think that that’s a more healthy way of approaching things. And I don’t know. Who am I to say one way is better or the other?
I will say that the way I look at it by having these defined things that I think are wrong is that it never then confuses me who’s doing what, right? If you’re working, and it’s benefiting Big Insurance, Big Hospital, Big Pharma, I don’t say the workers, right? The workers don’t, aren’t who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the C-suite or the lobbyists in this town or the policy people, the paid liars who are doing the work of these extractive industries. And not just oil and gas, but also them, but extractive as they’re looking at trying to extract value from people’s lives. And what that means is taking advantage of people, like, sucking capital out of them, holding their lives and their health and the health of their families hostage for money. And I don’t know. I think because I have a vision, and I know what I’m here for, and it’s actually coming from what I set out to do, I think that is part of how I’ve been able to, I think, do a pretty good job of maintaining my focus, and authentic focus, on really pragmatic solidarity, which is where I’m always trying to fit pragmatic solidarity as sort of my, in leading Dr. Paul Farmer, late Dr. Paul Farmer as well, that’s sort of the distillation of the preferential option for the poor and liberation theology. It can guide, it guides me. So, I’ll just personalize it and say that that is…. So, I don’t know. I don’t know where you wanna take that. If you wanna focus on, “You’re saying hate is important” [laughing] or if you wanna focus on pragmatic solidarity or where you wanna go with that.
VALLAS: No, I love that answer, and I love where you started to take it, because as I was sort of starting with intention, right, as opposed to starting with a job description. Because I have to say that was when I was thinking about how we could potentially frame up this conversation and what were some of the things that I look at you and I see you as a model of for the broader progressive community, the broader social justice space, as we have a series of conversations about radical self-care and what does it include, one of the things that I actually wrote down was, “Start with intention, not a job description.” And I feel like you just you took us there, so I’m gonna go there just a little bit more as well.
One of my favorite things to do, we were talking about this a little bit before we started rolling, is to talk to up-and-coming advocates who are looking to find their place in this work. It’s honestly one of my greatest honors in this work is to have kind of what sometimes get called informational interviews with folks who just wanna talk and say like, “Hey, I’m studying this. How do I get to X point and do this work?” And a common theme in those conversations is that folks are generally looking at a whole set of job descriptions and trying to say like, “Which of these might be a good fit for me?” And I always try to zoom out in those conversations and say, “Okay, we could look at a whole bunch of job descriptions, and we could see pros and cons for all of them and talk about tradeoffs and which ones are a six or seven or an eight in terms of fit for what you’re looking to do and what your goals are.” But where I always try to go and where I always try to zoom out is to say, “But what is the change that you’re looking to bring to the world? And what is that intention,” before you then start to get into how you go about bringing it into being and what jobs might be practical ways for them to take first steps on that path. Or not first steps, maybe it’s next steps, and people are at the point of changing jobs within the sector. And I wanna be fair, this is also true of a lot of folks who’ve been doing the work for a long time. I have no shortage of those conversations with friends too. We all do for each other. And now, here I am getting close to 40, and a lot of the conversations I have with folks in this space are, “Oh my God, this isn’t fulfilling for me anymore. My 22-year-old self thought that this job that I now have would be the thing I wanted, but it’s not. What do I do,” right? A lot of people are facing that as they live out the job description that they thought was what they wanted.
So, I wanna give you a chance to talk a little bit about what advice you have for folks who are at any stage of their careers about how to start with intention instead of the job description and how to go about creating a dream job in social justice. You’ve created now multiple dream jobs for yourself, all of which fit together with that larger mission as you started up top talking about versus going looking for job descriptions that one might be able to pretzel themselves into, but starting at that level. And I wanna start again with the caveat, obviously, there are times in people’s careers, especially in the beginning, where sometimes you’re just you’re needing to take whatever job you can get, and you gotta get the foot in the door. But my plea here is for folks to realize that there is another level of intentionality to bring, even if that’s gonna be the reality for getting the foot in the metaphorical door. So, Alex, where do you wanna take that in terms of where you were just going?
LAWSON: That’s great. Yeah. Big prompts you have today. So, I think—
VALLAS: It’s a big thought day, Alex. I’m talking to you, right? What was I—
LAWSON: I’m into it.
LAWSON: I studied philosophy in my undergraduate. I will say I love my school, my alma mater, St. John’s College. I went to Santa Fe campus. Beautiful. Much better at it now. But I will say when I went, there was literally no career services. That’s not true. There was. There was like, it was worse than no career services! And that, so the education was amazing, but I did enter the job market knowing nothing. So, I think that that actually in some ways helped me because the story I told about reading that National Geographic was, I think most people knew what a cover letter was, how to write one. I would write like thesis on my cover letter. Like, let me tell you the philosophical underpinnings of why I’m…. And I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I think that helped me actually, maybe break out of something that you were talking about because I knew what I wanted to do, and I was looking for a job that would allow me to advance what I wanted to do, which was this, you know, it wasn’t like super-duper well formed at the time, but I had a moral vision of what I wanted to do with a preferential option for the poor, which means healing the sick, caring for the downtrodden, feeding the hungry. And so, I think without knowing the— I’m also super lucky. So, I’ll put that out there. Don’t ever discount luck. But I do think if I can talk about stuff that did work out for me and some of the stuff that didn’t and it can help people do it in an intentional way, that’s what I would love more than anything, right? That’s what would be wonderful.
I think that I accidentally did what you just said, right? I think that I went into the job market looking for something that would advance my ability to push forward in my sort of moral vision. And I will say, in the beginning, I volunteered, and I had another, I had a normal job, too, which I was a bartender at Lovells of Lake Forest, and it was exhausting. I mean, I was driving down to the city to get some experience, unpaid volunteerism, which I don’t believe in. I didn’t realize the exploitative nature of volunteers, not that they, not that I think that Heartland Health Outreach was. But I think now there’s a better understanding, more so than two decades ago, of that you should get paid for your work. Same time, I learned a lot in the beginning, and the volunteering definitely led to me being able to stop being a bartender and become paid doing the work that I had first set out to learn about in an unpaid capacity. Again, I sort of hate the idea of saying that, but I will also admit that that is what I did too. So, that is part of the path that I took. But it was because I was looking to figure out exactly where I could do the most to advance what I saw as a purpose. And then once it was really honed in on pharma and drug prices and as Martin Luther King said, in paraphrase, but the inequities in health are the worst. And I really wanted to examine that and change it, because I did learn about the fact that it’s basically a tap that big money has. They hold our health over us and over the globe as well. They can turn on and off health, and that is abhorrent. So, I would be looking for places that I could advance that mission that I felt was in, that was mine. And it did lead to me sort of like I had strategic career moves. Like where….
Let me pause there and say something that I think I’ve also learned over my career, but in a sort of negative way. And it’s a little bit like beware, young people. So, I’m definitely sounding like the middle-aged man that I am. But I was really lucky that I was able to find places that were ideologically or philosophically similar to me. Because I’ve seen over and over again, people think that they’re just taking a job when they’re right out of college, and that’s when the pressure’s the highest, I think, is in that first, like to take just a job. They’ll learn whole identities at that first job, right? And they won’t even think that they have just wholesale taken on ideas from external place, you know, their job. But I see it over and over again. And that’s why big money and the right-wing machine is really good at this. They go in, and they recruit college-age kids, and they start taking them into seminars and giving them summer school jobs and basically saying, “As long as you toe the line on these ideas, you’re gonna have a job forever.” And it’s just true.
I don’t wanna personalize it too much like, say, Marc Goldwein, for example. But if there were other people or just like a type of person who does work, and they come into a space, I just don’t think that people are naturally like, maybe there are some, maybe Alex P. Keaton comes, you know. Some people are born being like, “You know what? The rich are getting a raw deal here! We need to protect the rich more than anything else and make sure that policies benefit the rich and powerful.” I think a lot of that stuff is picked up along the way. And so, yes, I was very lucky. And I would also warn people to be aware that in the jobs that you take, if you haven’t sort of identified your why you’re doing stuff, you’re probably gonna end up taking on the aspects of your job as identity, as parts of your identity, as why. If you don’t know why you’re doing things, the why will be supplied to you. And maybe that’s sort of a guiding thing of why it’s so important to really examine what is it that you’re trying to do? What is your goal? What would a win look like? And when you can describe that in words and understand it, then I do think you have some armor up against your identity coming from your job, which I think leads, like, it’s a direct line to burnout, right, if your job is your life. You can have your job be deeply part of your identity, but still understand that it’s only facilitating what you’re trying to do. It is not who you are. I think that’s one of the most important aspects.
And I also, I’m gonna toss it back to you to see what you think, and we can take it wherever you wanna go. I have management stuff too about how to, ‘cause I learned through a lot of this time as an activist working in HIV clinics, being an HIV activist and public health activist, I did learn that burnout is our main enemy. So, obviously, the funding structures and Wall Street and Big Pharma and all of our opposition, but what I kept seeing as the biggest problem was our best people could not sustain the work over the long term. And some of that is because of bad bosses and bad working environments, right? So, if anyone is ever pushing you to cancel vacations to do the work or anything, no, they’re not gonna replace any system with something better if they’re taking their management notes from Elon Musk, for example. So, yeah, I think, I’d leave it there with the like, be really aware of what you’re doing and why, not what. Be aware of what you’re doing, but be really aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you want to do it. It’s gonna help in sort of all along the way here on all of the fronts that we are discussing.
VALLAS: Yep. And burnout being the enemy. I mean, I feel like you’re doing like a promo for why we’re doing this season of Off-Kilter, right? Because it’s spreading like wildfire throughout the progressive movement, but it’s also not a new phenomenon. It has been the enemy for quite some time. And I’ll put in a plug for last week’s episode. Folks can check out our conversation with Sarah Jaffe talking about some of the structural reasons for that baked into the very history of the non-profit sector. So, give a listen to that episode for a little bit about why burnout is the enemy and has been for quite some time.
But, Alex, we’re gonna run out of time, so I’m gonna throw one more question to you, and then we’re gonna close out, which makes me sad because I could have this conversation with you every day, all day, and I think we would still come up with more that needs to be said. And I’m also just really enjoying your incredibly thoughtful answers. I’d forgotten that you were a philosophy major undergrad. Explains so much about why I love you so much, because I’m also something of a philosopher in how I approach this work, so, makes sense. But Alex, you started to get into it in talking a little bit about management and how important that is. And I have to say, as I was writing out this list of what are the things that a person could or should learn from Alex Lawson and how he shows up in this work, the last one I wanted to make sure we got time to include is that fun and joy are core parts of the work. And that really is a lesson that you model. You model it in how you do the work, but you also model it in how you manage. It’s baked into the culture that you set in the workplaces that you’ve described: Social Security Works, where you’re the executive director, We Act Radio, which you’re one of the co-owners. I mean, it’s also just honestly evident in any meeting with you on Zoom.
So, for example, if I’m gonna bring in maybe a colleague from The Century Foundation to touch base with you about this podcast, right, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize you have a lot of fun and bring a lot of joy to your work. You don’t show up and just be like, “Oh, I’m stressed! I have all this pressure, all these meetings.” That’s like the normal beginning, I think, to most Zooms and most meetings. Most of the time what you radiate is like, “What fun can I have today in the work?” And a great example of this would be a bunch of us. We’re all really stressed out back in the last time we were dealing with austerity politics in a significant way, trying to prevent Social Security from being cut in the name of deficit reduction. And your response was like, “Oh, hell no. I’m not gonna just let this stress me out and get me down. I’m gonna show up as a corporate pirate dressed as an actual pirate at a rally” led by someone you just name checked before, Mark Goldwein and The Can Kicks Back. And so, Aisha Nyandoro talked a little bit about joy as a practice for radical self-care in our season opener, and folks should go back and listen to that episode and hear her talk about that as well. But in the last few minutes that we have, how do joy and fun show up as radical self-care practices for you in this work?
LAWSON: Yeah, it’s, I mean, first of all, again, and I try ‘cause we’re having this very important and serious discussion, I would say, start off saying it’s hard, you know? Don’t think that, you know, “Oh. Well, I’m not having fun fighting for justice, so it must be something wrong with me.” It’s really difficult, and it does take a lot of work to find a place where you can find the joy in the work that….
Yeah, we’re gonna run out of time. We’ll have to have lots more conversations, but I’ll mix in some like, a couple more things that I think are important. It’s difficult to find joy in what is acknowledged as a never-ending struggle that you or I will never win. That I think you can read in all sorts of allegories that the promised land, you’re not gonna get there. Maybe you’re gonna get a glimpse of it, but the struggle is beautiful in that we will do it even though we know that we’re not going to win, that we will just advance down the line toward something so that possibly my children or my grandchildren or my great grandchildren or maybe generations so far in the future that I can’t put words to it until we realize, as humanity, that the very few having everything and that means nothing ‘cause it’s not like they’re like, “Oh yeah, great. I have billions. I’m satisfied now.” No, it’s an addiction, and they will never actually be satisfied either. But that the system, that we allow this perverse system to exist where kids are in poverty, millions, tens of millions of people around the world die because they can’t eat enough. And we have people who are sending themselves into space on phallic rocket ships because they got so much money just sitting on the side. That is abhorrent. So, it is ugly and disgusting and difficult. And so, how do you find joy?
Unfortunately, part of it is—or I don’t know if it’s unfortunate—but it is a mindful practice. You have to force yourself to find joy. And not to just quote Nietzsche, but here I go. If you stare into the abyss long enough, it will stare back. And fighting demons, fighting evil, you can’t become what it is that you’re trying to eliminate. If you become a very unjust person in the fight for justice, then that fight for justice is lost. And so, you have to actively and mindfully find the joy. And I do think that comedy, even if it’s like the grand universal comedy of the absurdity of existence, helps me. But then really, taking care of yourself in the very formulaic ways, right, like therapy and exercise, getting outside, touching grass, enjoying music, dancing with your eyes closed or open—doesn’t matter—appreciating art, you know, those are all active things that I think we have to make time for because we have to recognize that it is not inherently easy. It’s actually inherently hard to do the work that we do and stay happy. But you have, there’s so many different stories that are told to make this same point, which is you have to make your own bed before you can go out and do something else, right? Before you can help other people, you have to make sure that you’re in a solid place, or you’re gonna impact your ability to actually help or fight for justice because you’re not gonna be on a solid foundation. So, it actually is part of, and possibly the primary part of, being effective in the struggle is finding that personal satisfaction, that personal joy from doing the work that we do.
VALLAS: I can’t think of a better place to end this conversation. And it’s my only regret in having it is that it is coming to an end because I really, I love so much of what you’ve brought into this series, Alex. I am honored to get to be in this work with you, to count you as a dear, dear friend. And this conversation’s been a lot of fun for me personally, ‘cause usually I’m talking to you about policy stuff. And so, it was fun to get to flip this a little bit and to talk a little bit about the how we do this work. I’m gonna close just by saying—and it’s invoking from the opening monologue the Thelonious Monk quote that it felt to me like the right way to frame up this episode—but find the technique that’s relevant for you. I honestly, I can’t think of somebody who embodies that quote more perfectly, more beautifully. You don’t just do the work differently than we’re often told it needs to be done. You also, as you’ve talked about, wear a whole bunch of hats, that many of which are jobs you’ve created for yourself in order to do the work as you saw it needing to be done and in ways that allow you to express a whole bunch of different components of your unique archetype, your unique Alex Lawson-ness. So, thank you for all that you’ve taught me over the years and for sharing your wisdom with the pod. This has been a lot of fun. [theme music returns]
LAWSON: Thank you so much for letting me!
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.