Morgan Goodwin ’08 has never been one to accept the status quo. During his first semester at Williams he and a friend streaked through the halls of Frosh Quad during Sunday snacks as a way to “shake things up.” He followed that up by pushing the college to take more aggressive action in limiting carbon emissions, leading trips to DC for rallies, and helping to organize Claiming Williams Day.
After graduation, Goodwin resisted traditional paths in favor of uncertainty. He held five different positions in the first two years out of school, never staying at one place longer than six months. All along he learned about the type of organization he wanted to be a part of and the impact he wanted to make on the world.
That “bouncing around period” ended nearly four years ago, when Goodwin began working full-time for Avaaz, an online platform dedicated to working on progressive issues around the world.
I met up with Goodwin at his home in Truckee, CA – a sleepy mountain town a few miles from Lake Tahoe. After watching him officially register as a candidate for town council, I spent the next six hours learning about his journey, and the variety of ways he is continuing to resist the status quo.
What was your life like at Williams?
I had a blast at Williams – I was a Nordic skier, was CC Co-President, and founded the Spring Streakers. I feel like a lot of the things I did at Williams were done so that people would think of me as someone other than the streaker.
One of my friends and I did the first streak during a Sunday snacks right before finals freshman fall. Seven or eight people joined to streak the libraries during finals.
The streaking is a funny window into what’s driven me. I took two years between high school and college. Because of that, I expected college to have a little bit more questioning and more self-awareness about why we’re all at this really wealthy place in the middle of the woods. It felt oddly complacent. Streaking was a way to shake things up, get some discussions going, and make people question their social values.
How did you get involved in working on environmental issues?
I followed that up with a lot of work on climate change issues and student government. I got really into Chinese. I knew China was the big, scary unknown, and so I sensed their was an opportunity. China as an interest area led into climate as an interest area. Climate change was a similarly big, scary unknown that people didn’t really know how to address.
Through climate change work, I started meeting students at other colleges. That is what gave me the confidence to not find a real job after college. I was hugely ambitious to make a real impact in the world, but I was also disdainful of the more traditional career paths.
Morty Schapiro once told me, “a guy like you could go work for Goldman Sachs for two years and have the experience and capital needed to go do what you want for the world.” I think that type of advice was genuinely offered, but I found the whole mentality really problematic. Somehow I don’t think that encouraging smart young people to go work for the biggest and most established corporations and then become change agents is going to get us where we need to go.
After resisting the more traditional routes, what did you do after graduation?
Going into senior spring I was so burned out from all of the work I was doing at Williams that I couldn’t invest myself to fully in the job search. A job with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition came up through my work with the environmental community.
Burned out as I was, I wasn’t one to sit out of the fight. I took a job with the Sierra Student Coalition – a branch of the Sierra club, working in Cleveland, Ohio. We were working to educate young voters about climate change in the lead up to the 2008 election.
I had booked a plane ticket during graduation week for a 3-month trip to China with a friend from Williams. We landed in Hong Kong with three nights in a hostel booked and nothing beyond that. We emailed the alumni network there with an artistically worded email, making us sound more accomplished and ambitious than we were. We described ourselves as young, social entrepreneurs looking to start a company working with renewable energy.
Our third day there, we ended up on the pool deck of the Four Seasons having a multi-course meal with a multi-millionaire alum who was having a bit of a midlife crisis and was looking for a way to have an impact on the world. By the next morning, he had hired us.
Once my three months was up, I moved to Long Island to work for a solar energy company. I worked there for two months for slave-labor wages and realized the company was going nowhere.
The theme of my experiences after Williams was saying yes to a lot of random things with short-term commitments that often had shaky financial underpinnings.
I spent a couple of days having absolutely no idea what I was going to do next. That’s when the call from avaaz came through. They were setting up a climate action committee, which was going to be 20 youth activists living in Washington DC. The idea was that we would figure out the plan and avaaz reserves the right to veto it outright or keep avaaz’s name off it. They said, ‘if you want to get arrested, check with us first, but we’ll probably say yes.’
Meeting activists at other schools was a real eye opening experience. There is a pretty small network of students, usually one or two at each school, who are truly dedicated to solving climate change. We would sit around as a group of seventy people and say, ‘how are we, as the people in this room, get the US to stop polluting carbon?’
Working for avaaz in DC, we did all sorts of crazy stuff – protesting in front of The White House and Capitol building. The biggest stunt we did was working with a group called The Yes Men. We rented out a room at the National Press Club and put out a press release to a big press list where we pretended to be the US Chamber of Commerce. We announced to the world that the Chamber of Commerce was reversing its stance on climate change legislation. It was reported as real news by MSNBC and Fox Business News. That landed us in a lawsuit.
Over that time, I became impressed with Avaaz as a group. They didn’t have any jobs for me – I wasn’t really skilled enough in any one area to land a full-time position, but it was something that I was excited moving towards.
Through my work in DC, I got to know the non-youth climate activists, especially the bloggers and journalists. Through those connections, I got a job in Australia working for a blog that researches and debunks global warming denial. Whenever some talking head would go on the news talking about how global warming wasn’t real, we’d have a blog post up within a day, saying ‘this person has accepted money from Exxon Mobil and going into the details of the study he or she was citing.’
It was a small organization, so I was doing a lot of different jobs. While I was there, I learned how to setup websites in a short amount of time and disguise your online identity. Ironically, that technical experience is what got me a job at avaaz. Now I’ve been with avaaz for three and a half years.
The role you finally got is more of a technical job?
Half of my role is working as a campaigner – most people at avaaz do some campaigning. I was writing text for fundraising emails, fact-checking our releases, building connections with partner organizations, etc. What makes avaaz amazing is that its work spands the gambit, and it trusts the staff to learn on the fly.
The other half of my work, and the reason I got the job, is working with their data and the technical side.
For me, it was much more confidence than experience. I didn’t have a computer science background.
What’s the story behind avaaz?
Avaaz was founded in 2006-07 as an international campaigning organization whose mission is to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want. The mission is really profound because it makes a couple radical assertions. One is that there is a world that most people everywhere want and that our job isn’t to argue over the details of exactly what that world looks like but to close the gap a little bit during our brief time here. It allows us to be incredibly pragmatic in some instances and incredibly idealistic in others.
We have a membership of 37 million people, and we are entirely member funded. We also don’t allow any member to donate more than 5000 euros so that no one feels like they have an undue say in how we act.
Last fall we launched a campaign targeting the government of South Africa. We wanted to end the practice of raising lions in captivity and killing them for sport. The reason we were running the campaign is that this was the best way to end the ivory trade and therefore reduce the impact of illegal poaching. It’s impossible to distinguish between bones of lions raised in captivity versus those in the wild so if you stop allowing lions to be raised in captivity, then it means that any lion bone is illegal.
We had 300,000 people sign a petition and then took out advertisements in the Cape Town airport baggage claim. We had floor to ceiling ads of the South African President holding a pistol to the head of a baby lion. Pretty graphic stuff – we were not trying to make friends. Four days later, the airport authorities pulled the ad. We had enough money on hand to hire lawyers and sue them for violation of our right to free speech. Within a few months, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and we won. It was the first time that political free speech had ever been challenged at the supreme court level in South Africa. So we set the legal precedent for anyone to use free speech for political purposes.
It’s a cool example of how the mission of avaaz is to go to places where we can move the ball forward.
What criteria do you look at when deciding which issues to work on?
There are three criteria. First, the membership has to approve. We have almost 40 million online members, and we test every issue with them. If there is a very low action rate, we don’t move forward. Second is the impact on the world. That’s really hard to measure because you’re comparing big issues. That’s a constant discussion. Third, we try to determine what issue gives us the best opportunity to have a meaningful impact that week. We look for unique moments that capture the world’s attention and try to change that into tangible improvement.
Three years ago, we got to know a group that was pushing large international hotel chains to implement internal policies to prevent hotels from being used by sex traffickers. People have this image of sex trafficking taking place in slums, but a lot of it actually takes place in international hotels. Traffickers will bribe the nightshift managers. This organization had been working with the corporate responsibility office at Hilton for a year. They came to us because they felt like they weren’t getting any headway and that Hilton was just trying to placate them. We started a petition that said that once we reach 300,000 signatures, we were going to put up billboards in the hometown of the Hilton CEO accusing him of allowing sex trafficking. Four hours later, the head PR person at Hilton called us to ask what they had to do to prevent us from moving forward. She told me, ‘the morning you sent the email, it was like a bomb went off in our office because everyone who had some connection with Hilton was calling in.’ Four days later, they signed this agreement that the other group had been working on for over a year.
What does your day-to-day look like?
My day-to-day varies a ton. Three months after I joined, I was spending every day going to Best Buy, purchasing satellite phones, and putting them in duffle bags to send to Cairo and Algeria and Syria so that we could blackout proof the protest. Syria was actually pretty far down on our list of countries earlier in the Arab Spring, but because we started sending them equipment early on, we were the only organization able to document protests in Syria. We were feeding that to the BBC and the Guardian. A lot of traditional media outlets couldn’t operate there – whereas we thought it was too important to keep quiet. We were willing to pay smugglers in cash where organizations like the Red Cross weren’t able to.
What gets you most excited about the job?
I’m really attracted to the broader mission of the organization. The day-to-day work is stimulating and fulfilling, but I wouldn’t do the same work for a dating app. What keeps me going is thinking about the potential that avaaz has to be ten times bigger and more powerful than we are now, and the potential we have to be a leading player on a lot of big issues. The Arab Spring was a great example of how it is possible to get millions of people into the streets on a few weeks notice and topple governments. We’re in a moment where in some ways we’re moving beyond nationalism. The biggest threats are not one nation to another, but poor decisions we make collectively. Avaaz has an opportunity to build a sense that we all have a global mission. Every time that I think our work is too naïve and idealistic, I see some campaign that avaaz runs and it restores my faith.
You started a lot of organizations at Williams, and you were responsible for setting the agenda. How have you been able to adapt to being more of a team member rather than the ultimate leader?
You’ve hit on a challenge. If I didn’t trust and respect the people I work with, I wouldn’t be here. I work with some of the most truly amazing people in the world – people who have lived in war zones and devoted their lives to really tough issues. At the same time, the people I work with are so humble and willing to be wrong. There are times when I feel lucky to have managed to get myself into avaaz.
I do miss some of the independence and the ability to chart my own course that I had at Williams. To me avaaz is a long-term project. I could see myself still working there in fifteen years. In order to do so, I’d rather not burn myself out and meet some life goals in other ways. I’m able to have a healthy outdoor lifestyle and work on local issues that I care about.
What has inspired you to run for town council?
One of the things that avaaz believes strongly is that effective government is important – that by working together we can arrive at a better conclusion than any collection of individuals working alone. We have a combative political system on the national level rather a cooperative one. My experience with student government at Williams and through my observations since, I’ve seen that at least on the local level you have an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue.
I’m running because I think the town of Truckee is doing pretty well, but using that position I could push the limit and say, ‘let’s see how awesome local government can be.’
How have you come to view a successful holistic life?
I need regular access to the outdoors with interesting physical challenges and adventures. I need circles of friends where the circles connect – small towns feel more at home to me because a friend of a friend of a friend is usually back to being a friend. I need to be challenged with a fast paced environment where I’m engaging with different people and ideas.
I actually want to feel a decent degree of unsettled most of the time because that’s what leads to new relationships and experiences.
You accomplished a lot at Williams, but you left without a job. I imagine there was some pressure to choose a prestigious route (eg high-paying job, fellowship, etc.) How were you able to resist that pressure?
It wasn’t intentional – that’s for sure. You measure a traditional startup by its potential and monetary impact. For social entrepreneurs, the goal is to try new theories about changing the world and being willing to fail.
At the time, I thought that my 23-year-old climate activist friends were much more impressive than anyone going to work on Wall Street. I didn’t have any role models who were being disruptive enough that I was going to follow them.
You bounced around for almost two years after Williams before settling into your current job. What were you able to learn during that time?
Mostly I was able to learn about different kinds of organizations – how effective are they internally and how effective is their theory of change in the world. When the rubber hits the road, is this organization really going to move the boulder up the hill?
Over that time, I had pretty serious conversations with groups of friends about launching different businesses. Almost everywhere I worked wanted me to stay, but I resisted. I didn’t feel comfortable committing to anything longer than a few months. That allowed me to be somewhat picky about where I wanted to be.
A lot of people are afraid of switching jobs early in their career. Have you felt any ill affects for leaving your jobs after only a few months?
If you’re doing the college thing because that’s what you do after the high school thing, and then you’re doing the first job thing because that’s what you do after the college thing, and then you do the grad school thing because that’s what you do after getting some real world experience, then you’re just getting by. If you’re just looking for ways to get by and you’re smart enough to have gotten into Williams, there is no shortage of opportunities.
If you allow yourself to see the ways in which you really want to make a contribution to the world, even if you think it’s too ambitious or too crazy, and you’re willing to follow that passion and take the blows as they come and learn from them, that comes through. That shines through in a job interview so much more than whether you checked the right boxes on your resume. It doesn’t have to be fully thought out, you just have to trust that your own gut is going to guide you and that you are going to work to overcome hardships. If you have something you want to do, but you don’t do it because you’re scared of how it will look on a resume, then you’ve taken yourself out of the game, and you’re just along for the ride.
Do you have any advice for students at Williams that might put people on the right track towards exploring what they really care about?
Whether it’s studying abroad or volunteering in other areas or even taking certain classes, try imagining a different worldview where Williams is the status quo, where Williams is part of the system perpetuating injustice around the world. Just try that thinking. One, there are some brilliant people who think that. Two, if they’re wrong, wouldn’t it be better to learn that for yourself?
Where do you see yourself in five, ten, fifteen years?
I can see myself doing a similar flavor of work for a similar kind of organization with a lot more experience and a lot more resources. Avaaz is a 5-10 year project and we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible. Building those systems to bring people together to enact change is something that excites me.
I could see the politics becoming a full-time thing, but I’m also saying that now at a point where it’s as rosy as it will ever be in my life. Government done well can be incredibly powerful force so maybe that’s something I’ll pursue further.