Today I’m speaking with Jay Milbrandt, author of Go and Do: Daring to Change the World One Story at a Time. Jay is an attorney and serves as the director of the Global Justice Program and as associate director of the Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics at Pepperdine University School of Law. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jay.
Jay Milbrandt: Thanks, Gayle. It’s great to be with you.
GT: You write that “sometimes it is about you.” Isn’t this counter to most major religions’ teaching that it’s all about others?
JM: It is, it is. But I think that when we start with the premise that it’s all about others, we tend to get very discouraged when we look out on the world and at the issues that surround us. It’s overwhelming. We don’t really know how to start. I think that when we start with the premise that this is just something that is going to be good for me. It will be good for my faith or my education or I just want the experience going out into the world to be useful, I think we figure out along the way and in the end that it’s not about us. It’s about serving others and we get to the same conclusion but we get stopped, we get held up by this discouragement that we don’t know where to begin when we start with the other premise that it has to be about everyone else.
GT: What made your faith come alive for you?
JM: For me it was about meeting a number of kids in Thailand, and it was probably the furthest thing from law or what I thought I would be doing. I met some kids who worked on the street in a red-light district and they sold flowers. They were going in and out of these brothels, and it just broke my heart and I ended up having to, in a very unconventional, unexpected way, spend a number of evenings with them throughout the summer that I spent in Thailand. And being with these kids made me feel like I’ve got to do something for them, and there’s no one else here who could respond. And they were the people who really captured my heart. So that was the first place I really felt like I’m coming alive in the law and what I wanted to do because I started to use — although it was at first not connected to the law, not connected to my profession — I found ways that it eventually did connect and ways that I could use my skills to be helpful to them. It started from that and then it snowballed. How could we seek justice for the least of these? Something about that just captured my heart and captured my mind, and I think it does for so many of us and that’s where I really started to come alive and find my own.
GT: You counsel students at your university, Pepperdine, to go and do. How do parents influence their kids in their decision whether to go and do?
JM: It’s funny because there are a number of obstacles that our students will face. They’ll come into my office and they’re excited about these heroic things they could do with their professions and with their law degrees. They’ll want to do it, and then they’ll go home and they’ll have that phone call with their parents where they tell them, “I’m going to go to India for the summer,” or “I’m going to Uganda to work in the justice system,” and oftentimes the students will come back and say, “Ah, you know, now I’m not sure. My parents are really nervous about this. They don’t think it’s a good idea. They think it might be unsafe for me.” And these are the same parents who at the same time will be so interested in what another young person — someone else’s adventure or life where they’re going and working in Africa or other places that are dangerous — but when it comes to their own kids, they get very shy about it and very nervous. And I think that we just need to find a way to reconcile that and to help parents become part of the experience and accept that. But it’s an interesting phenomenon because it’s one of the biggest factors for our students in wanting to be able to get out the door.
GT: Does the anemic economy and uncertainty about the future make it harder or easier for you to persuade students to go and do?
JM: A little of both. And I think probably it makes it easier because I think students are saying: This is a time when I may not get a big firm job. I may not have the opportunities that were here five or ten years ago where employers were fighting for us. What are the alternative career options that we could pursue? What are other things that I might go out and do that are not right in front of me? And so they’ll look at these career options or internship options that they may not have considered a few years ago. We’ll place students with the Supreme Court Chief Justice in Uganda or top ministry in Rwanda or an amazing organization in India and they’ll come back and they’ll go to interviews and they’ll be competing with students who worked for local judges and local law firms and they’ll have some people’s last names on them that you don’t really recognize. And the employer will say, “Wait, you worked for the Chief Justice of Uganda? Tell me about that.” It helps them really stand out. And especially in this really global economy, this global market that we’re moving toward, these international experiences are so useful and employers are drawn to things that are unusual, unique and also that serve other people. So I think it’s a bit of both. Opportunities aren’t necessary always at hand. It’s harder to find the money if you need financial support for some of these things, which we try to make available for our students at the university. But it sets up our students for some unique opportunities once they return.
GT: Did people die in these places if the lawyers don’t show up or only if the doctors and the nurses don’t show up?
JM: There are places, unfortunately, where people do die if lawyers don’t show up. One of the most remarkable and unexpected situations for me was on this project in Africa where we worked with this tiny little prison that was deep in the bush in northern Uganda. It was a place where kids were just sitting in jail for two years without ever having gone in front of a judge or without having a single day in court. It was a place where a number of kids had died, just waiting for a lawyer to show up and do something. They had gotten sick, gotten ill while they were there or beaten by other kids or a warden in one case, and we could have just shown up — lawyers could have shown up sooner and those lives would have been saved. So there are definitely these places where the rule of law doesn’t extend, and we need lawyers to just go and take cases or be involved and it saves lives immediately.
GT: The Kony video about Uganda has gone viral. How did your friend Jim overcome his fear to not only travel to Uganda but to eventually move his entire family to such a dangerous place? How many kids’ lives were changed by your initial visit?
JM: On the initial visit that we made, there were twenty-one cases for children and we were able to resolve nineteen of them. Two kids were let go, and they were completely freed. One child had to serve more time. Another child ran away before his sentence was given, and he would have been let go, so it was a very successful trip. We were able to make major headway and we were actually planning to return to this same prison in northern Uganda again where there are nearly thirty cases that are waiting trial. This is a problem that we are working to resolve completely but it is a problem that has cropped up again and we just need to help build up the judicial system, the justice system in that country in order to create a program that doesn’t allow these kids to continue going into this horrible circumstance. But Jim came over on this first trip when we resolved the nineteen cases and it was such a meaningful experience to him that he came back to the U.S. and his heart just burned to be in Uganda and to be with these kids and help create the system that would protect them. And so it was really a major leap of faith for him to pull his kids out of school and change their entire lives for six or nine months only, but that’s a long time, and go to Uganda — to pick up everything they have here and move it over to Africa. And they had their whole family on board. It was a family decision, but it was quite a giant leap of faith for them to make this big process and live in a place where it was dangerous and unknown but speak into the lives of children and help make a small difference in the world somewhere.
GT: What do housewives in Midland, Texas, have to do with the horrible conditions in the Sudan?
JM: That’s an amazing story, that there was this church and this community in Midland, Texas, that took on the southern Sudan situation as ambassadors. They’re not in the middle of the D.C. metropolitan area where international issues are going on. They’re in Midland, Texas, in the middle of Texas and yet they decided to make this their own cause and to invite leaders from Sudan to their homes and churches and to open dialogue and have discussions and go there and have discussions and conversations with people in power. And they were just so empowered as citizen ambassadors to take up this cause and see how they could present solutions and be a part of that conversation, so they were able to make some incredible steps toward peace and reconciliation in those areas, just by seeing themselves as ordinary people, as housewives and ranchers’ daughters, and seeing themselves as citizen ambassadors and practicing their own citizen diplomacy.
GT: How has the pursuit of climbing taught you to anchor your life properly?
JM: Climbing has taught me a lot of things. It’s taught me a lot about fear, dealing with fear, overcoming what seems like difficult situations, to reach peaks and accomplish things that you think are impossible. One of the lessons that I’ve learned from climbing is how to balance things — how to balance challenges and opportunities in my life. One of the concepts in climbing is the concept of tension, that tension is a good thing, that you have different anchors for your life, that hold your rope. You anchor it in three different points, for instance, and you need a certain amount of tension on each of those. And I think that we become really the culmination of a lot of things — a lot of different tensions, pressures that are on us, on our own lives, and we need to figure out how to balance those, how to equally weight them, instead of having one tension overcome us. And that’s I know for me, that was a big factor in being able to go and do. There were tensions of money and power that overwhelmed me and pulled me in a certain direction but that left my life out of balance. When I was able to balance that with the go and do side of things — with service, with finding areas of purpose in my life — I found it to be much more fulfilling.
GT: Why do you suggest that everyone have a meaningful side project?
JM: I think that we all need to pursue a parallel career. That we have our day job and our day job is fundraising activity for maybe what we really deeply want to do. Not all of us can go and do fulltime. We can’t go and work for an international organization in Africa that is serving the poor in a meaningful way. There aren’t the jobs — that’s just not possible for all of us. We can’t go work for Legal Aid, downtown Los Angeles. It’s not an opportunity that everyone has available. I hope that some people pursue those. We need people to do those, but it’s not for everyone. But we need to find a parallel career and that is that thing that makes us come alive. So for me, I have a day job and what I love doing is working on these projects with the kids in Thailand or some of the projects in Africa. And so when I go home at night, it’s communicating with the kids, it’s trying to work out what the next project is, the next visit, the next time that we’ll be sending some financial support over. I think if we build these parallel careers, we’ll all have something that’s very purposeful, and we don’t need to feel like we need to wait until we’re able to retire and can take on this volunteering. We can do it now, and we should do it sooner rather than later.
GT: Why do you write, “While we may not see our trajectory at first, it always starts with a few intentional first steps.”
JM: We don’t know where we’ll end up and where any of these projects that we might be involved on, where it will take us. And we shouldn’t try to plan it out. We shouldn’t approach any of this — service, our work, going and doing — we should not approach it with an agenda, with a plan. If we do that, we’re usually wrong. And it’s usually not what those who are in need actually need. And so we make a few intentional steps, for instance: I’m going to find a place where my skills can fit in and where I can see myself possibly being useful or a place I’m drawn to. And then we go and make a commitment to go and be a part of that but not know what we’re going to do, we actually are in a better position. We’ve set ourselves up, we’ve made some intentional steps and then let the rest of the plan fill itself out, guided by those who truly need our help.
GT: What is the great tension we each face and how do we overcome this?
JM: I think that we all become a culmination of the different desires that people have for our lives. So for me it’s their friends or family that want me to live different places or pursue different career paths or be a part of different organizations or other opportunities or investments. There are finances, bills and loans and lots of different tensions and they all want something from me and our goal is to figure out how to balance all these things and how to find something that’s purposeful so that we can move beyond all these tensions and they can balance our life out.
GT: Margaret Thatcher said, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intensions; he had money too.” Are good intentions enough or is there value in achieving worldly success to have the means to help others?
JM: One thing that is definitely evident to me is that we need people who have that worldly success, who are financially successful who can help fund different opportunities. And this also brings me back to that parallel careers point that I made earlier. We need to think in terms of having a career now that can help us create the means by which we can serve organizations and people who are doing great work because we’re not necessarily all in that position. And I think Margaret Thatcher’s right in that we need to go and we need to serve like the Good Samaritan, but we also need to put our money behind the things that we do and we need to be invested in projects and opportunities that are meaningful to us and the financial aspect of so many organizations I know and people who are trying to do good work — for so many of them it’s financial barriers. We need people out there who are willing to be invested in that and willing to achieve some worldly success in order to help make those things possible.
GT: Thank you so very much for speaking with me today, Jay, about your book.
JM: Thank you. I appreciate it.
First published in First Things in June 2012