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Justin Dillon’s Punk Rock Approach To Solving The World’s Problems

by Brendan Dowling on June 13, 2017

Justin Dillon had a thriving career in music before moving into the field of global activism. For over ten years, he has been a key figure in the anti-slavery movement through his organizations Made In A Free World and Slavery Footprint. With his new book, A Selfish Plan to Change the World: Finding Big Purpose in Big Problems, Dillon imparts the lessons he’s learned along the way, shares his tactics for implementing change, and creating the change you want to see. Dillon spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on May 25th, 2017.

I wanted to start by talking about your background. How did you move from being a musician to a key figure in the global anti-slavery movement?

I think the role of any artist is to wrestle with dissonance. To me, all art is taking something dissonant and trying to turn it into something that’s beautiful and something that makes you feel more human. So when I learned about this issue of human trafficking, obviously it’s quite dissonant and not a lot of people learn about it. In a lot of ways, what became “activism” for me was really just an art form. I wanted to try to take something that was wholly indigestible and turn it into something inspirational that people could own for themselves. So that was my journey into it.

It started with making a film called Call And Response. It was moving out of music, but taking music with me all the way through. When I created this film, I brought this through line that all popular music is a product made with slavery. In the film I sit with Dr. Cornel West and I say, “Take me back to the slave fields, to the musical form that was call and response. My guess is that that is the predecessor to verse and chorus, tension and release, dissonance and resolve.”

So the film was another creative expression for me to go after something I use every day—verse and chorus—to pulling out this thing that we enjoy as a product of slavery, which became a much, much bigger meta-story for how we all consume products made with slavery every day and we don’t even know it.

And in terms of how we unwittingly use products made by slavery, can you talk about your organization, Made In A Free World?

Well, we’ve turned into a business. What we currently do is we sell software to mostly big companies, but sometimes big organizations and governments as well. Our software is able to analyze everything a company buys, and help them identify where the risks of forced labor is deep in their supply chain. It’s very seldom directly from the people they buy from and it’s pretty much never the companies themselves, but it’s who they’re doing business with—or who the company they’re doing business with is doing business with—that’s where you start to see these Indicators and these risks of forced labor.

What we’ve done is we’ve created this software that helps these companies find it. What’s fun about it—I think it’s fun—is that we’re able to use the power of the marketplace to fix the problem instead of the power of charity. The power of the marketplace is far more powerful. So we’re wrangling that power—the power of big big businesses—to use their purchasing power to disrupt these illicit networks deep in the supply chain.

In the book’s introduction you describe the book as a “self-help-others manual.” What do you mean by that?

The reason we reach out for any type of self-help book—and I don’t even know if we call it that anymore—is because we’re stuck, we’re trying to get over some type of challenge in our life. We want to live a bigger, better, fuller life. And so through that lens, this is very much that book.  It’s not a book about slavery, it’s not a book about sad things. It’s about how do you live a fuller life?

What I’ve come to find in the ten years trying to fix other people’s problems is a deep sense of purpose and meaning. What I’ve come to realize is that this “otherly” sense that we all want, like why are we here? How do we contribute a verse to the bigger narrative around us? How do our lives—as normal and comparatively insignificant to all the lives we hear about, through media—mean something? And what I’ve come to find is the answer to that question is other people’s problems.

So in the sense of being able to help yourself, you help yourself find purpose and meaning when you apply yourself to the problems of others. It’s taken from Dr. King’s speech at Oberlin College where he says, “I’m not who I’m supposed to be until you are who you’re supposed to be.” I just believe there’s this universal axiom where we find out who we are when we give ourselves away, which is very opposite to the thinking of “you’ll find your identity by the things you take in and through the things you acquire.” I’m saying, you’ll find out who you are and you’ll find out how much you can do–and I’m living proof of that–when you start to take on other people’s problems. It’s very counterintuitive to a lot of messaging and teaching and popular thought today

It seems that the book deviates from a lot of traditional self-help books because it advocates the need to act selfishly. How does acting selfishly fits into your vision of changing the world?

Because I’m on a mission to eradicate the term do-gooder.

What don’t you like about the term “do-gooder?”

Because it’s otherly. It’s not integrated. I think doing good and taking on other people’s problems shouldn’t be something that’s segregated from your life. For the last ten years I’ve been put in the do-gooder category. It’s like, “Oh, that’s great, you do good.” And I’m like, “No, I’m doing what I love. I’m communicating, I’m doing what I’m good at.”

Look, I’m not qualified to change the world. I still don’t believe I’m qualified to change the world. I’m taking what’s inside of me—my back story, my talents—and finding ways to apply them to others. And yeah, I might be a little weird, I might be a little obsessive about it. It’s completely disrupted certain patterns in my life—I’m no longer a musician, I now sell enterprise software!

But the book is a guide for people to say, “How can I find meaning by taking on other people’s problems with where I’m at and what I do.” And so this idea of “do-gooder,” that’s this this elevated term where it’s somebody else, and “I can’t change the world that’s for celebrities, and for people in the government, and the U.N.”  I believe that’s such B.S.

I believe that those who truly change the world are the ones fantastically unqualified to do so. So I’m on a mission to solve two problems in this world: solve people’s very real need for purpose and meaning in understanding who they are—which is a pandemic in our society—while also solving some of the bigger problems of the world that maybe we don’t have to face, like hunger and health and justice. And by the way, solving a problem that might be right outside your front door—all of those issues are all around San Francisco as I look around. It’s really a practice of “I’m going to find myself by applying myself to the problems of others,” and this book helps you do that.

You just mentioned how you don’t consider yourself qualified to solve these problems, and in the book you discuss how while we might not be qualified to take on these problems, all of us are authorized to do so. Can you talk about that distinction?

Twelve years ago I used to look at the world’s biggest problems as something to be handled by professionals. And now that I’m considered one, I think it’s bogus. I’m so fully aware of my lack of professional qualifications. Changing the world has in some ways become a business and it shouldn’t be—meaning that there are a lot of inefficiencies to changing the world, and we hear about them often, but we don’t like to talk about them.

We’ve botched changing the world into something where it has become a black hole where resources and time goes but not a lot happens. And I think that’s not only bereft of opportunity but it’s totally broken if we want to truly solve the problems we’re trying to solve today. Moving forward into the twenty-first century, I believe everyone is authorized. I realized that kind of early on—and I don’t know if this is a struggle with identity myself—being in the room with really smart people and yet still being in the room! (laughs) And I was like, “Well, they sound a lot smarter than I do, but I’m in the room, so I’m authorized.” Part of the purpose of this book is to take down the velvet rope and let anybody in the room who wants to change the world. It’s very anarchic, but with a good heart.

Throughout the book you use the language of music to talk about changing the world, and I wanted to talk about how you use some of those terms. Can you talk about your idea of how people need to find their riot?

Find your riot is taken from a punk rock song by The Clash. They were a very white band playing to white people talking about black issues in the late seventies. That, to me, is just fantastically punk rock. They were telling white people, you’ve got to find your riot. Black people have their riot because they have to have a riot. But if you don’t have a riot, if you don’t have something that you’re fighting for, something bigger than yourself, then you’re just another sullen bloke hanging on the periphery of society and you’re not really going to matter. So if you want to matter, you have to find a riot, you have to find something that’s bigger than yourself.

That’s just not about yourself. I start off the book with this idea of find your riot, where inside of every one of us, there’s something that we riot for. For me it was when I learned about human trafficking. That was it. I knew I was going to fight for that. And the way I fight for it and the extent in which I fight for it isn’t something everyone needs to do. For someone else it might be mental health. For someone else it might be race inequalities in their city. Your riot is something inside of you where you typically say, “I wish somebody would fix that.” And you keep saying it. If you notice when you see it come up on your social media feeds, it’s the thing that you keep pointing to going, “I wish somebody would fix that.” My response is, “That person might just be you.” This book is a very careful approach to let’s see what that means. Let’s see what that thing inside of you where it might go. It might be part of the script of your life, and who knows where it might lead you? So this book is a gentle invitation to being able to take what’s a social irritant inside of you about the way you wish the world could be and see if we could suss that out into something that might provide meaning and change in the world.

Once people have found their riot, what’s your advice for how they can best invite other people to be part of their plan?

I was at a book party last night and somebody came up to me and invited me into a group for entrepreneurs who need a safe place to be vulnerable. I laughed at first, but then I thought, “Oh my gosh, I totally need that.” Because when you’re doing anything, there’s really few safe places. And what I’ve seen, when you’re trying to do really hard things—like make a film or create software or do an event or whatever—is that vulnerability to the thing you’re trying to achieve creates a wave of participation for others to join in. When you take that vulnerable step forward and say, “I’m going to make this change,” you create a covering and a wake for people to go, “Oh I can help you with this” or “I know how to do this, will that help?”

One of the most beautiful things that I’ve been able to participate in over the last twelve years is people come up to me because I do crazy stuff—or I try to do crazy stuff and I’m not always successful—people go, “I know this person, can I introduce you?” “I know how to do this, can I apply this?” Or sometimes, “I’ve got some funds, would you need help with that?” Being a recipient of other people’s generosity in your riot is magic. It’s pure magic.

So once you identify your own vulnerability people just naturally show up?

They come along for the ride. And vulnerability in art—I think that was where that question came from—that’s when we get excited about an artist on stage. Yeah, we love the lasers and we love the video, but when they show you a little bit of who they are we’re like, “That’s me. I’m in!” When a painter or a filmmaker does something really vulnerable and intimate and shows you who they are or shows you who the character is, your heart just moves towards that.

Just like in art, where we need artists to create a vulnerable safe space for our hearts and souls to move forward, I think we need that in the world of change as well. And sometimes it takes these mavens, or the crazy ones as Steve Jobs would say, to step forward and say, “I want to see this exist in the world.” People come in behind that and find their own riot or find their own way to help and come in and support that vision. It really is an economy of change, but what I’m hoping this book will inspire is more people saying, “I’m not finding myself in my acquisition and comfort—as important and vital as those things are—there’s more to me that I can attain and what I can achieve.” My hope is that this book will encourage people to take those first steps and then be along for the ride and see how the magic happens when people come alongside and want to be a part of it.

And while this book is for everyone, how do you see librarians applying it to the work that they do?

Well, librarians are kind of the mainframe of our consciousness, right? In a lot of ways, they curate and collate our consciousness. They’re the analog of Google. They’re the original search engine for how we learn about ourselves and learn about our world. For a librarian reading this book, wanting to find their own riot, I would hope that it would inspire them to take another look, and look at their position and skillset a little bit differently. Especially for the time we live in where it’s highly digital and highly crowded, I think we’re going to continue to hunger for people to curate and tell us where to look and how to live. I don’t think that’s ever going to stop. So librarians are really the analog curators of information for us. I hope this book inspires them to see how important they are and see how their job can help shape the world just by guiding people towards information.