Civic Action

Taking Aim: Your Pledge to Act

July 23, 2019  • Jordan Kassalow

Everyone has been there — you see something wrong in the world that you want to help fix. You feel a nudge to act, but ultimately you back down, overwhelmed with the scale of the problem and the realities of your life. Henry Crown Fellow Jordan Kassalow calls this a crisis of mattering; hearing the call to make a difference, but feeling stuck by the constraints of time and one’s responsibilities to family, job, or any number of things. The key to moving past this, he says, is having a clear target to aim at, starting with an Action Pledge. Below, Jordan reflects on how his Action Pledge helped him achieve success, and in the pages ahead, we dive into the ways Fellows are making their Action Pledges reality.

Wherever you are on your life’s path, any moment that moves you to transform a crisis of mattering into an action plan that puts you on your own path to your something that matters has the power to turn life as you know it into the best life you know. An Action Pledge should be tough, but also achievable; long-term enough that it requires constant effort, but realistic enough that you can achieve it. It also should begin with an “I” to make you the CEO of the change you want to make and the person with whom the buck stops when you evaluate yourself based on the standards you have set.

Jordan Kassalow

I took my first Action Pledge in 2013 as part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum. The Action Forum brings together business leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and others invested in social change. They come from dozens of countries across the globe to share their visions, reflect on their work, gain perspective, and recover their own, as well as recommit to what they’ve set out to do to make a difference in the world.

The Action Pledge itself is “a public commitment to help tackle a specific challenge.” Mine was, “I will provide 1,000,000 people a year with affordable eyeglasses in over 20 countries by 2016.” My pledge obviously wasn’t something I could achieve alone by a long shot. It was my pledge through my work in VisionSpring, and that of our staff, Vision Entrepreneurs, and local heroes at the grassroots level in every country, town, and village we served, as well as with our funders and strategic partners. I’d also made another near-term pledge that I would ensure that 500,000 people who needed eyeglasses in the developing world not only had access to them, but had them, by 2014.

By 2014 we had in fact achieved that goal in 22 countries and had exceeded it by another 48,000 people. Although we didn’t reach our one million people a year goal until 2018, the Action Pledge gave us a concrete benchmark for incremental success.

In taking my Action Pledge, I joined hundreds of others doing absolutely remarkable things of every size and scale in issue areas that I’d never otherwise have known anything about. People like Patricia Musoke, a scientist and project management specialist at the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose 2016 Action Pledge was “to motivate at least 200 teenage Ugandan girls to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) by 2020.”

Patricia Musoke talks with young Ugandan girls about STEM careers as part of her Action Pledge.

In the furtherance of her goal, Patricia founded an annual weeklong science camp for Ugandan girls in the hopes of pointing them in the direction of STEM careers. Women make up more than 50 percent of the population in Uganda, yet few have access to the education or the encouragement they need to pursue STEM careers, which offer opportunities to lead financially independent lives. In Uganda, financial independence for women can be the difference between having to stay in abusive marriages and having the freedom to get themselves and their children out of abusive situations without worrying about financial vulnerability.

My Action Pledge experience has helped me in the process of squaring off with a specific social need in a targeted way. By taking your pledge, your work for good will go from something hazy (which can happen even when you’re deep into your efforts to create change, because you’re so deep into the work that you’ve gotten lost in its easily all-consuming nature) to something clearly stated that feels, and is, real and manageable. By zooming out and zeroing in on the practical, you impose structure on an imposing issue and on the imposing goal to make your life matter, which also helps keep you from feeling overwhelmed when you’re trying to do something big and decidedly bigger than you.

In addition, once you’ve taken an Action Pledge and armed yourself with your own set of specifics, when you look around and see what other people are doing to take action you will feel more motivated, not less. Rather than feeling like the problems of the world are too vast and too difficult for you or anyone else to make a dent, or feeling like others have lapped you in the race to do something that matters, with an Action Pledge the only thing that will overwhelm you is how good it feels to see so many others who not only believe that real change is possible, but also are proving it through their commitment, resolve, optimism, ingenuity, and action every day.

This piece is an excerpt from Jordan Kassalow and Jennifer Krause’s book, “Dare to Matter.”