Photo of "Stepping Stones" by Paul Tomlin

“Stepping Stones” by Paul Tomlin

As a relatively new scholar and even newer attorney, I often struggle to understand what kind of a difference my efforts make in the world. I look at renowned scholars, activists, and civil rights attorneys and sigh at how little I’ve done in comparison. My writing hasn’t been cited in SCOTUS decisions, I haven’t litigated ground-breaking lawsuits, I haven’t given a TED Talk or spoken to a stadium-sized audience.

Intellectually, I know it’s not fair to compare myself at such an early stage in my career to people who are decades into their work, but there’s always this nagging feeling that if I’m not doing something ‘big’, something affecting hundreds or thousands of people at a time, I’m not really affecting anybody or anything. Then, every now and then, something will remind me that my particular collection of experiences, knowledge, and skill set mean I do have something valuable to contribute. Nearly a year after Georgetown published my article on the discrimination of LGBTQ asylum seekers, I finally uploaded it to the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) because I want my scholarship (and ultimately knowledge itself) to be more widely accessible to others. A useful tool of SSRN is that it alerts authors when their paper makes the top ten in a particular category. While the universe of people who rely on (or even know about) SSN is rather small and insular, it still gives me a bit of joy to get the weekly emails on how many times my paper has been downloaded or what categories it tops in.

Some might call it vain, but for a young activist scholar, it’s helpful to have these little milestones to motivate me to keep going, especially in the face of seemingly impossible odds. There are other markers that I use that help me gauge my effectiveness and usefulness: getting asked to speak at conferences or work as a consultant are signs that there are people out there who believe that what I know, can do, and have to say is valuable, even if it’s not in the thousands. And through word-of-mouth and other networks my contributions can spread to and educate (and ideally motivate) other people to work towards justice for all.

So, how about you? What kinds of milestones or signifiers do you you in your particular work that help motivate you? Let me know in the comments.