June 9, 2017; Washington Post
Every nonprofit organizer and employer should read Malcolm Harris’s column yesterday in the Washington Post carefully. In it, Harris asks why the profile of government leakers skews so young these days. Considering Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and now Reality Winner—a 25-year-old veteran recently taken into federal custody for the alleged crime of sending a classified document about the activities of Russian hacks to an online magazine, The Intercept—Harris writes that it all makes perfect sense:
Without intending to, employers and policymakers have engineered a cohort of workers that is bound to yield leakers. An important part of our training for the 21st-century labor market has been an emphasis on taking initiative, hustling, finding ways to be useful, not waiting around for someone in charge to tell us what to do. In a Pew survey of young workers, a majority said they wanted to be the boss someday or already were. And if we can’t boss anyone else, we can at least boss ourselves.
This reflects a trend that NPQ has been pointing to for some time. The contract between institutions and individuals has been changing, with a far lesser expectation of permanence on both sides, and this makes the individual in many cases responsible for his or her own ethical constructs, values, achievements, and job trajectory.
Harris writes that workers and potential workers are increasingly clear that they must “be their own brand.” So, if the ethical choices of an institution do not align with that of a millennial who is confident about his or her own brand, including their moral reasoning, and if the social stakes are high enough, the millennial may go with his or her own commitments even if that institution is the federal government.
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Manning and Snowden have had as big an impact as any other individuals I can think of in our cohort. A cynical observer might say they were after fame, but the consequences they have risked and endured make that hard to believe. There’s no number of Twitter followers worth jail or exile, and none of the leakers is accused of being stupid. If some Americans—young ones in particular—celebrate leakers, that’s understandable. It takes courage to pull off what they’ve done, and selfless courage on the public’s behalf is admirable. What’s more important than the document Winner leaked is that policymakers know there are people below them who will keep them accountable or at least expose them to the world.
Will that change for the better the integrity of institutions? If it doesn’t, we may reasonably expect more leaks:
That rhetoric about living our values sinks in every once in a while. We hardly invented leaking, but millennials are especially well suited to the tactic. It’s a squirt gun we can use on our leaders when they’ve stepped out of line. I don’t imagine that employers—public or private—are going to start inspiring loyalty or stop abusing power anytime soon, so expect the leaks to keep flowing. At least until millennials find a bigger weapon.