Movement entrepreneur Jeremy Heimans and novelist Taiye Selasi explore how the millennial generation is driving a momentous shift in how we do politics, conduct business, and engage in the critical issues shaping our future.
The generation coming of age today is more technologically sophisticated, culturally informed, and globally interconnected than any generation in history. Millennials – those born after 1980 and who now make up a sizable part of the world’s population – are already a powerful force, one that is reshaping our political arrangements, business models, and social conventions. For Jeremy Heimans and Taiye Selasi, the changes they are setting in motion have less to do with technology – or the power of social media, as conventional wisdom would suggest – and more to do with a distinctive millennial mindset. Today’s young people are politically active, socially responsible, culturally tolerant, and impatient for change. Heimans and Selasi are both thirty-somethings who have thought and written extensively about this generation. While they come at the subject from different vantage points – he is an entrepreneur and social activist, she is a novelist, photographer, and documentarian – they have both emerged as influential spokespeople for millennials trying to stake out a place for themselves and make their voices heard. Their conversation took place on a wintry afternoon in London. Heimans was returning to the U. S. after attending the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Selasi had been in London on a reading tour for her widely acclaimed novel, Ghana Must Go.
Taiye Selasi: Although we have never met, I think we were at Oxford at the same time, both studying international relations. It’s a tiny world.
Jeremy Heimans: I knew you were at Oxford, but not that we were there at the same time. I dropped out after two terms. I told my professor – a very charismatic and wonderful woman named Ngaire Woods – that I saw myself as more of an activist than an academic. Her answer still resonates with me: “You know, the world needs more activists and fewer reflectivists.” So I left Oxford and started out on my journey of activism.
Selasi: A friend of mine recently said to me, “Jeremy Heimans is who you would be if you had not become a writer.” I think I would have loved doing the kind of work you do.
Heimans: We are both storytellers. But you are more elegant in your storytelling than I am.
Selasi: Tell me about your stories. What form do they take?
Heimans: I think my medium is organizing people and helping them discover their own sense of power and agency. I find that very thrilling. One of the ways that Purpose does this is by creating campaigns. We develop a brand, an umbrella, that people and organizations can rally behind. We are currently developing an international campaign for Syria, for example. We also launch actions targeted to achieve particular change.
Selasi: Petitions, donations, lobbying?
Heimans: Yes, it could be petitions, protests, and self-organizing offline. The campaigns also invite people to tell their stories and then allow those stories to surface from the bottom up on a large scale.
Selasi: That is very exciting. I was recently on a panel at the UN General Assembly with a group of so-called “millennial factivists” – young people who are using social media and other technologies to engage people politically. There was a wonderful activist from Nigeria, Japheth Omojuwa, who was able to convene a well-organized peaceful protest against oil subsidies in just a matter of hours. A colleague of his from Kenya, Boniface Mwangi, did the same. He used social media to bring together 600,000 people to promote peace and nonviolence. What I find so powerful is the way in which these new technologies can unite people in Nigeria or Kenya, who share a common story.
Heimans: Exactly. Over the last year or so, I have been working with Henry Timms to create a language and a framework that can help explain what is happening. We came up with the term “new power” to describe the models and the values underlying this shift. “New power” relies on mass participation and peer coordination to push for social change and other outcomes. A good example of this is the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. It eclipsed the National Endowment of the Arts as the largest funder of U. S. cultural projects just three years after launching. Or Beppe Grillo, the comedian and blogger who won a huge share of the vote in the recent Italian elections despite having no formal political apparatus. Another case in point is Airbnb, the technology start-up that connects hosts with people looking for short-term apartment rentals. The company has become the world’s largest provider of short-term accommodation, surpassing business giants like Hilton, Intercontinental, and the Marriott. What these examples have in common is that they all rely on networks enabled by coordination among peers and the active participation of large numbers of people.
Selasi: You are referring to a shifting power dynamic, then, and not just the use of Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and mobile phones.
Heimans: That’s right. There is a lot of banal talk today about how social media is changing the world, as if the changes we are seeing are largely to do with technology. But a much bigger, more fundamental and more human transformation is taking place, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces – old power and new power. Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads. It commands. New power works like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads and it shares. In the case of Airbnb, it is enabling a very efficient coordination among people at scale, which makes it easy for people to stay in different apartments without having to rely on hotels.
Selasi: And that makes it very threatening to a city like New York, which claims that the company is avoiding local hotel taxes.
Heimans: Exactly. Airbnb spreads the value of its activity much more widely. Two million Airbnb hosts now make a living from it, which is a very different business model than a hotel chain with a small number of owners. So that is a positive development.
Selasi: Yes. But there must also be cases where the exercise of this new power has not been good for those who participated in enabling it.
Heimans: Yes, and we made that point in a paper we just previewed at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “New power” is not inherently positive. It can easily become old power.
Selasi: Can you give me an example?
Heimans: Many of the emerging tech companies rely on the dynamics of mass participation and peer coordination, but they subscribe to old power values. They have a “made by many” model but often demonstrate an unwillingness to devolve power. That is suggestive of very old power values. There is a line between enabling participation and giving people a sense of agency on the one hand, and simply exploiting peer networks once they appear on the other.
“This cosmopolitan world in which we are living is driven in large part by money, trade, profit. To inject purpose and meaning into that model takes a certain act of will.”
- Taiye Selasi
Selasi: In short: these tools are very powerful, but must be put in the hands of people who care to use them toward empowering ends – profitable, empowering ends.
Heimans: Right. There is nothing wrong with profit, but you need to bring in a bit of purpose as well. If you take the question of values seriously, it means that you can’t just tinker with your model. You need leaders who see the inherent value in enabling participation and in fostering a collective sense of agency.
Selasi: I find it curious that purpose and values are often viewed as dirty words. I began my working life at a hedge fund and I can remember how those words would make people’s eyes roll. There was always a heavy sigh as if to say, “Here we go again.” I think one of our tasks, Jeremy, is to change the way this language resonates with people. There are many people who actually believe in the importance of these values but have perhaps been conditioned to be skeptical of the words.
Heimans: Yes, I agree.
Selasi: This cosmopolitan world in which we are living is driven in large part by money, trade, profit. To inject purpose and meaning into that model takes a certain act of will. But it also requires that we never let anyone start playing “Kumbaya” softly in the background when the word “purpose” comes up. We must remain clear that values are brass tacks too.
Heimans: I actually come at this problem from the other direction. There is a risk that those who are not driven by purpose start to appropriate the language of it. Many organizations now have a CSR program of some kind, for example, but it is often marginal to the core impact of their work. So a company can do enormous damage to the planet every day but put a good face on it by giving scholarships to poor kids. This is highly distracting from the reality of the company’s impact. The danger is that everybody will start to cloak themselves in a mantle of purpose. When that happens, people lose the ability to make genuine attempts to create social value with profitability, which is what we are trying to do at Purpose.
Selasi: At least these ideas are becoming more widely accepted, aren’t they? More people now understand the meaning of the terms, even if some choose to remain socially indifferent. The uninterested will always be with us.
Heimans: That’s right. I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we are not trying to glorify this work or present ourselves as saints by any stretch. I am simply making a distinction between those whose primary metric for life is wealth accumulation, and those who are in creative fields or working to bring about social change – those motivated by some mix of good intentions and vanity who are trying to leave a mark on the world and make a difference. Because of their progressive worldview, the work we do at Purpose very much appeals to those people. The striking thing is that they can have radically different backgrounds, yet they have a common worldview.
Selasi: A common worldview, yes, and also an ever-changing one. I am part of a funny border generation that graduated from high school without e-mail and from college without mobile phones. So those of my generation have seen a radical change not just in the way things are done but in the amount of information we receive while doing them. When I was young, I traveled a great deal. But there was no way of seeing what was happening in Egypt or Syria, for example. Perhaps we heard about it on the news, but we did not see it in real time the way we do today. The world itself is available to people in a way that it has never been before. So we have to expect that young people coming of age today see a very different world, one that is constantly shifting. On Thursday, half of my friends in New York thought the U. S. should go to war against Syria. On Friday they changed their minds because of new information that, in a different time, would have been available to no one, except perhaps the president and his closest advisors. This means that there is a constant instability in the way we think and the positions we take.
Heimans: That’s right. And as circumstances change, there is only so much that people can adapt. Since our mammal brains are not going to improve from an evolutionary perspective in the next million years or so, there is a natural limit to how much information we can take in without feeling overloaded.
Selasi: When we speak of young people, we are referring to them in relation to when they were born. Of course, the year that you are born does not necessarily shape the way you view the world. I think there is nevertheless something fundamentally different about the way young people are experiencing themselves in the world today, a different modality of values perhaps.
Heimans: Yes, it is a more global outlook and sensibility. If I look at the communities that I have helped to build in the work I do, what unifies them is not that they are all environmentalists or that they all oppose the war in Iraq. Rather, it is that they share a cosmopolitan worldview. It is tempting to think that everybody shares this worldview now, but that is not the case. Most people around the world have a worldview that is based on their identification with their tribe: “This is who we are and we must protect it at all costs.”
Selasi: What distinguishes my tribe – and I would include you in it, Jeremy – is that we tend to think about ourselves first and foremost in terms of our relationships. About nine years ago, I wrote an essay about my own journey through the wilds of self-identity, called Bye-Bye Babar. I had come to realize that every time I tried to identify with something, someone would tell me I was inaccurate. If I said, “I am American” (and I really do my best to speak in this kind of Northeastern American accent), someone would always point out that I was not really American because I was born in the U. K. If I said, “I am British,” then I was told, “No, not really, because you speak with that funny American ‘r’.” My mother comes from Nigeria, but if I went there and said “I am Nigerian,” people would say, “No, no, because you don’t speak Yoruba and you haven’t spent a lot of time here.” So, I thought to myself: “Bloody hell, I don’t have an identity.” This was not just a philosophical problem for me. Everyone else seemed to be an authority on what I could say I was or was not. I began to think that perhaps I wasn’t alone. There had to be other people who were born in one country and raised in another, perhaps, or who had parents from different places. When I wrote Bye-Bye Babar, I used the term “Afropolitans” to describe that group of people – those like myself, my twin sister, my cousins, my friends – who have an unequivocal relationship to a place on the African continent but who are constantly, for whatever reason, being asked to stand and account for the complexities of that relationship. It was a delight when the essay went viral and I discovered that there were in fact thousands of people who could relate.
Heimans: The term “Afropolitan” captures that cosmopolitan worldview I was describing earlier. Afropolitans are young, culturally savvy, and have a distinctly global outlook.
Selasi: “Afropolitan” has become a label, but that was never my intention. I was describing an experience, not an individual. It was an experience that I knew very well, having lived it, and one I believed others shared. I suspected that it might give rise to a certain way of looking at things, one that I think leads naturally to the instinct to be an activist and effect change.
In the essay, I mentioned architect David Adjaye. There is nothing about his career, perforce, that would make him a change agent, apart from the fact that he believes in architecture as a tool for creating and reshaping community. That does not make him new or different. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe had very similar views. But he comes to his work from a Ghanaian, Tanzanian, Afropolitan background, and so he adds a unique wisdom. The same could be said of authors like Teju Cole, Chimamanda Achidie, and NoViolet Bulawayo. And the same of certain politicians, certain musicians.
“New power is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven.”
- Jeremy Heimans
Heimans: Where do you think the instinct to bring about change comes from?
Selasi: If you are born into a situation in which there is not enough space for you to understand yourself, you have to create space. And in order to create space, you have to effect change. My mother is a good example. She was an intelligent woman born into a culture that does not believe that women should necessarily be educated. She had to effect change. She had to elbow out enough room to get the education she knew, from an early age, that she deserved. If you were born like I was into a culture that keeps telling you what you are not, you have no choice but to establish for yourself what you are. The change does not necessarily come from a sort of moral high ground. It comes from a recognition that the world in which we find ourselves has to change at some level to accommodate who we wish to be and what we intend to do.
Heimans: Hearing you describe your experience really resonates with me. I am the child of immigrants in Australia. My father is Dutch. He was born in hiding during the Holocaust and spent the first two years of his life in an attic. My mother is a Lebanese Jew, which is very uncommon. So both of them have a strong sense of otherness.
Selasi: They had to make space to be themselves, to create you, and to make sure that you felt totally at home in the world. I think these are the very human origins of the instinct to create change. In my mind, they always precede the moral ones.
Heimans: I think that is right. I definitely credit my parents, particularly my father’s experience of being a survivor of the Holocaust. Some survivors turn inward and move into a worldview of protection and security. Others turn outward and say, “This is what we went through and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” My father was the sort of person who went outwards. He was a documentary filmmaker most of his career and made films about the Holocaust and the plight of Aborigines. He told scary stories about when the Gestapo showed up at the door of the Christian family that was hiding him and his family and how they narrowly escaped being taken away. Those stories had a strong impact on me as a child. The narrative was always: “Let’s not let this happen again. Let’s embrace the values of tolerance.” This gave me a sense of responsibility, one that I carry forward in my own work today. Even though Australia was a safe place to be the child of immigrants, it was not an easy place in other ways. As I was growing up, I felt a sense of otherness on multiple levels. I always felt very different. I was gay and had an early awareness of that. Australia is a very “blokey” culture, so you can understand why I was keen to leave and why I now feel so at home in New York, where all shapes and sizes are embraced. I think I was drawn to New York for its cosmopolitanism. It felt more like home to me than places that were more established and closed.
When I came to New York at the age of 21 to be an intern at the United Nations, I remember saying to myself, “God, this is a place I can be myself.” Being in New York was liberating. I felt like I was able to completely escape the cultural expectations and confines of Australia.
“ If you are born into a situation in which there is not enough space for you to understand yourself, you have to create space. And in order to create space, you have to effect change.”
- Taiye Selasi
Selasi: To some extent, I think that sense of “homeness” comes from having people around you that remind you of yourself. My friends and I call ourselves “the tribe.” It has an open membership. People of all stripes, colors, and creeds are welcome. New York is full of us “tribespeople.” Many of us have created homes there with others who, despite our differences, are all engaged in that same project. When I moved to New York, I joined a community of people who all seemed to share the sense of otherness that you describe. Many of them were born and raised in the country that their grandparents were born and raised in, and they looked exactly like the central casting version of a Belgian, German or Australian. But they nevertheless shared, beat for beat, that sense of standing apart from the cultural mainstream. That is when I came to realize that my sense of otherness was generated by something entirely different, something much deeper within. That led me to the sense I now have that home is wherever I find my kind. What this suggests, I think, is that both communities and identities are flexible. They move and they shift. They are located here one day and there the next. We used to look to the state to create community and give us a sense of identity. But I think that as time moves on our home countries are losing their hold in that regard. Communities are coming together around stories that are different from the old narratives of national identity. As Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani author, said to me recently: “We are all time traveling. Even to say that I am from Pakistan is something that wasn’t true at a certain point in recent history. And the Pakistan that I come from is not the Pakistan that my father was born in. And it is not the one that my children are growing up in.”
Heimans: This comes back to what we were saying earlier about young people. Whether they are in Nigeria or New York, they are finding new ways of creating community with others who share the same values and the same stories. And now, of course, most of them are producers. They create content every day. They view participation almost as an inalienable right and expect to be engaged in the process of building movements and creating social change.
Selasi: I am seeing that as well. Right now I am working on a documentary project called “Afripedia” that gives voice to Africa’s creative millennials: people who are almost completely absent from media coverage of the African continent yet who are stakeholders, who will live out the policies that are being enacted now, and who will shape Africa’s future. Who are these young people? I believe that if you actually got to know a 26-year-old trying to make a life in Zimbabwe, or really came to understand a 29-year-old living in Egypt today, you would say, “This is absurd! Why are the lives of these young people being so acutely constricted by the state? What right does a government have to reduce the possibilities for people like him?”
Heimans: I have found that the most effective campaigns we run often involve taking a big issue like the criminalization of homo-sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa and embodying it in the story of one person. In fact, that is how people learn.
Selasi: Yes. Perhaps because I am a storyteller I always need a person to bring an issue to life for me. Always.
Heimans: Our campaign on Syria takes a similar approach. Our aim is to choose an issue that people have relegated to the “too hard” basket, one that has no clear good guys, and have people re-engage with the human stories. Syria represents perhaps the biggest moral challenge to the international community in twenty years. One-third of the population has been displaced. Many of the people are middle-class. They are educated and work as doctors and engineers. They live in suburbs and raise their families in much the same way as people in America or Europe do. They are largely secular, not the religious zealots that some people perceive.
Selasi: And that are often alluded to in the media.
Heimans: Exactly. And they are now doing what we would be doing if we were in their circumstances. They are having to eat their pets because there is no food. They are having to eat the grass in their backyards. So we are creating an international campaign with the hope of increasing humanitarian assistance to Syria and, more ambitiously, to create more of a clear political constituency for peace and negotiation.
Selasi: Bravo. I really commend you for doing this. If you ever need any help with the campaign, just let me know. I’d gladly donate my time.
Heimans: I would love that. Maybe you could help us tell some of these stories. That would be wonderful. It is an ambitious campaign, I have to say. But it is worth a try.
“Whether they are in Nigeria or New York, young people are finding new ways of creating community with others who share the same stories.”
- Jeremy Heimans
is co-founder and CEO of Purpose, an organization that develops social-minded campaigns, incubates new movement organizations, and teams up with existing companies to infuse their work with purpose and participation. Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1978, he took an interest in politics from an unusually young age. While still a boy, he launched media campaigns and lobbied politicians on issues like environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation. Now as an adult, he instinctively understands the power individuals wield, especially when they are united by a common cause. Heimans was educated at the University of Sydney and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and began his career with strategy consultants McKinsey and Company. In 2005, he launched GetUp!, an online activist group that has become a leading force in Australian politics. Two years later, he co-founded Avaaz.org, which is today the world’s largest online political organization with some 35 million members. He went on to launch Purpose, a social business aimed at building movements “driven by people and enabled by technology.” In 2011, the World Economic Forum at Davos named Heimans a Young Global Leader and he was granted the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award. In 2012, Fast Company selected him as one of today’s Most Creative People in Business. A citizen of Australia and the Netherlands, he now lives in New York.
is a writer and photographer with roots in Nigeria and Ghana. She was born in London, England, in 1979 and raised outside Boston, Massachusetts, the elder of twin daughters in a family of academics. Her childhood was marked by intellectual curiosity, academic achievement, and a sense of never quite feeling at home. She earned a B. A. in American Studies from Yale and an M. Phil. in international relations from Oxford. She went on to work for a short period as a hedge fund manager, and later in television, interviewing celebrities and producing documentary features. Today she divides her time between New York and Rome, a perfect embodiment of that complex fate shared by those of African heritage who were educated and now make their home away from the African continent. In a landmark 2005 essay, Bye-Bye Barbar, she coined the term “Afropolitans” to describe this generation of young people, many of mixed heritage, born of African parents who left their home countries in the 1960s and ’70s to pursue higher education and happiness abroad. Selasi’s debut novel Ghana Must Go appeared in 2013. It tells the story of an educated cosmopolitan African family not unlike her own, one marked by high levels of academic achievement and professional success, but also by a sense of separation and searching questions of identity. The book was widely acclaimed and selected as one of the ten best books of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Selasi was recently named one of the 20 best young British writers by Granta Magazine.
PHOTOGRAPHY: FRITZ BECK
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