At Harvard University’s Public Policy Leadership Conference that I attended this year, the hotel lobby after hours was abuzz with conversations over goals various students had for enacting change in the world. One of the most common threads of conversation had to do with the notion of success, and how to balance personal success with our desires to help our communities.
Lively debates among first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students over whether one can combine “securing the bag” at a high-paying firm with being a force of good in the world often left people at a loss as to how to manage these competing interests.
These conversations are not foreign to students at the 5Cs, and they’re important conversations to have in the aftermath of recruitment efforts from places like Goldman Sachs and various prestigious consulting firms.
Personally, I think many students are willing, if not eager, to be pipelined into these companies without enough consideration as to whether they as students are doing harm by choosing to work for particularly unethical companies.
After being in classes dedicated to examining the various systems of oppression that exist in our world, it’s frustrating to see people internalize these findings, only to take the first or most prestigious opportunity that may be contributing to those very systems.
When I say “unethical company,” I realize that that’s a pretty nebulous term. Certainly, one could argue that there’s little to no choices for an ethical company, or that by nature of working in a capitalist system you can’t truly escape causing some degree of harm.
It’s important then, to think of things in the context of what jobs for what companies align with your values.
For example, I would never work for McKinsey & Company because I deem their involvement with entities like ICE as personally unacceptable. Facebook is another company I wouldn’t work for, because data privacy and discrimination in housing are important issues to me.
I can’t speak to anybody else’s threshold for contributing to different injustices — for some, their most treasured values are related to sustainability, and therefore they may not want to work for a company prone to producing significant excess waste. Our personal values are nuanced and complicated, but whatever they may be for each of us, it’s important that we center those values in our decision-making process, instead of considering them as afterthoughts.
While this does indicate that my argument is more about avoiding betraying our own values than simply avoiding “unethical jobs,” I want to make it clear that I would hope the values of everyone at the 5Cs have shifted as a result of the experiences they’ve had here.
While “unethical jobs” are difficult to define within a spectrum of ethics, I sincerely hope that most of us can agree that contributing to U.S. imperialism at Raytheon or being complicit in the mass extraction of drinking water at Nestlé are bad things to do. Our employment choices should be a reflection of the development of our values over our four years here.
There are, of course, outside considerations people make when it comes to where they decide to work.
As someone with citizenship, I don’t have to worry about my immigration status being impacted by employment. At this moment, my immediate family and I don’t have egregious medical debts to worry about paying off.
It’s not my place to police the post-grad outcomes of those with these various lived experiences, but I do want to stress that I think it’s important that we, whenever possible within our own privilege, consider how the institutions we work for impact the world and the communities we came from.
While many of us at the 5Cs deal with intersecting marginalizations that limit a completely unrestricted job search, we simultaneously attend prestigious colleges that grant us the privilege to be competitive candidates for all sorts of jobs.
It should be a moral responsibility to use that educational privilege to at least give pause when we consider how the companies we work for contribute to or work to dismantle systems of oppression.
I’ve heard people explain working for what we would mutually consider “unethical companies” by professing their goals of “changing it from the inside.” While this is a noble goal, more often than not this can be wishful thinking at best.
Particularly when dealing with private corporate entities, you are employed in the interest of capital accumulation over all else. Even the Board of Trustees of Pomona College are limited in influence of making decisions that are morally good instead of financially beneficial, due to their fiduciary duty to the college leaving them open for lawsuits by not abiding by the creed to create more wealth over all else.
More specifically, a frequently brought up concern regarding Pomona divesting from fossil fuel companies is that the trustees could be held liable and potentially sued for making investments that are less financially sound for the sake of sustainability.
Perhaps it’s still worth the effort in some cases, but it’s worth giving some deep consideration as to whether you can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools and challenge power structures in a meaningful way from within.
Again, my end goal is not to be a gatekeeper and dictate where every single person is permitted to work. It truly is difficult to balance the need to find a secure job that pays well, whatever your personal reasons may be, with living by your moral values to the fullest extent possible.
However, we do have autonomy to various extents when making these decisions, and there are real-world ramifications tied to those decisions whether we want to believe it or not.
It is understandable and human to want to treat yourself to a well-paying corporate job, especially for us FLI students who may feel some level of entitlement to financial comfort. But remember that these personal goals can be antithetical to bringing social justice and liberation to the communities we leave behind by climbing these professional ladders.
Ultimately, these are our own decisions to make, and I will never fault a person who goes through this mental calculus and determines they need to take a short-term job at a company that doesn’t fully align with their values. But we can all benefit from adjusting that calculus, and taking the time to really search for opportunities that make positive impacts.
Devon Baker PO ’22 is a guest writer from Jonesboro, Indiana. They love doing ballroom dance, a capella and looking at their PC game library for several minutes before deciding to play nothing at all. Right now, they think “Delete Forever” by Grimes is the space country song the world needs.