When I was 14 my school, facing an upcoming Ofsted inspection, decided that it would add inspirational quotes to our weekly homework planners. The very first week read “Be the change you wish to see in the world – Gandhi”. Being a distracted and also admittedly quite annoying teenager, I would make a habit of telling anybody that would listen that Gandhi in fact never said this. In the event, I failed to change the world: they continued to reprint the same quote each year, and for all I know a generation of embittered 14-year olds are still complaining about much the same thing.
It was only when I got to Cambridge that I realised that, regardless of the source, it was actually quite good advice. In the wake of votes for Trump and Brexit, and the seemingly inexorable progress of climate change and economic inequality, it seemed like no matter what we as students did, the injustices of the world would continue unabated. It was a depressing thought.
I still wanted to create change myself though, and my natural instinct was to get involved in charity. That felt like something positive that I could directly influence since charity doesn’t directly depend on seemingly uncontrollable political or economic situations. However, I was disillusioned by the tendency of some charities to play into similarly low expectations of change: instead of actively engaging with supporters and enthusing them about the social impact we are all capable of having, some organisations neither expected nor encouraged engagement at all. Instead, fundraising was done almost by ‘stealth’: collecting loose change in a bucket, for instance, or rounding up the cost of a purchase.
To be clear, this is not to say that the people involved aren’t generous, or that this kind of thing isn’t worthwhile – the opposite is true. But I also felt a sense of missed opportunities; by not challenging people’s perceptions and seeking only passive support, it seemed to me that many of these initiatives were passing up the opportunity to have a much greater and lasting positive impact.
Then at the start of my second year, I found an organisation that mirrored my own ambition in May Week Alternative (MWA). The concept is simple. At Cambridge, we are lucky enough to have a widely-renowned tradition of celebration in May Week. A week which represents a time of positivity and joy, where we can celebrate the end of exams with friends, food, drink and music where even the prying eyes of the Daily Mail can’t put a dent in the positive atmosphere. MWA takes that positivity and uses it as a catalyst to bring together celebration with giving and social impact. Students make a donation of any amount significant to them; then during May Week they all come together for a Summer Party to celebrate the end of the year and the impact that they have had. By bringing together celebration and giving, MWA seeks to inspire and enable students to have a significant impact through their donations.
By definition, joining MWA is not something that can be done without careful consideration, especially when for most students, their donation is greater than anything they will have made in the past. But that’s the point: rather than attempting to slip giving in under the radar, the goal is that student’s considered donations lead them to think deeply about the value of giving, and the huge impact they can have. For instance, a £150 donation (the average price of a May Ball ticket) would, through the Against Malaria Foundation, help protect 354 people – a mid-sized college – from malaria.
By choosing to give through MWA, students are able to have a considerable direct impact. Beyond that, this kind of engagement with our power to do good in the world has the potential to inspire long-term altruistic attitudes, which can be carried forward far beyond Cambridge. At last year’s Summer Party I had prepared a leaflet offering pathways to social impact – volunteering, activism, careers etc – at Cambridge and beyond. The plan was to hand them out to attendees as they left but, by the end of the party, the box of leaflets had been emptied by partygoers’ own volition.
To see so many people inspired by a shared positivity take action towards improving the world in this way has been perhaps the most inspiring moment of my Cambridge career to date. And the community keeps growing: as of this week, MWA has engaged over 500 students in positive giving, growing at over 200% per year and raising over £140,000. I believe that MWA’s celebratory mindset has been integral to this success: by showing that charity is not merely something to do unthinkingly, but can be an enjoyable and social experience, we can help students take the first steps towards effecting the change they want to see in the world. The fact that the money raised has helped protect over 162,000 people from malaria – almost two Wembley Stadiums – shows that this kind of thinking can result in a previously unimaginable impact.
Ultimately, MWA has shown me how it is possible to bring about change through our actions and perspectives today. No matter how complicated and stressful our lives can be at Cambridge and beyond, people have a tremendous capacity for altruism and cooperation if you engage with them in the right way. By harnessing positive motivation, rather than guilt or obligation, we can ultimately – in the words of not-Gandhi – “be the change we want to see”. That’s something I’m sure even my cynical 14-year old self would have found at least a little inspiring.
The deadline to join MWA 2020 is Sunday 1 March – to find out more, visit www.mayweekalternative.org.uk.