Confessions of a 20-something: You want to save the world? Take a number

The competition is getting fierce here in New Orleans.

No, I do not mean the Pelicans retooling their roster or the Saints gearing up for another shot at a Super Bowl championship.

peace signSince Hurricane Katrina, this city has been inundated by 20-somethings looking to make a difference. When the floodwaters receded, the young people poured in from all corners of the country, starting non-profits, trendy businesses, community-development groups, teaching — you name it.

To attract its share of the stampede, Tulane University also made drastic changes after the storm, eliminating application fees for high school students, developing an enormous pool of scholarship money to lure students back to the city, and adding a unique service-learning component to the curriculum.

After a difficult freshman year at Boston University, I began my search to transfer, and Tulane kept coming to mind — mine and a whole lot of my contemporaries. No longer a stagnant backwater (if it ever truly was), post-Katrina New Orleans offered a chance to be a part of something bigger, the chance to be in on the ground floor as the city climbs back from the depths of disaster. New Orleans is the new Seattle. The new San Francisco. It’s the place to be!

Which is why, after graduating from Tulane, I decided to stay. That meant finding a job. Shouldn’t be a problem for a committed young idealist like me, I told myself. Hell, I’d work for practically nothing. Put a roof over my head and gruel on the table and I was ready to serve.

The career fairs confirmed that gruel might be exactly what was in store. I learned all about AmeriCorps and its myriad opportunities to work in housing rehabilitation, local schools and environmental advocacy. AmeriCorps are paid so little, they call it a stipend, rather than a salary: $12,500 for 11 months work. Not to worry about gruel: on that pay scale, you qualify for food stamps. The idea behind the stipend is that you are supposed to basically live like the people you are serving in the community. I liked this idea, even though it worried me a little. It would be a good lesson in financial responsibility, I thought. Plus, I figured, this meager compensation would weed out other candidates who did not have the ability or desire to live like Medieval mendicants.

With every Tulane senior and his mother panicking about post-college life, I figured that I had a pretty good resume for one of these AmeriCorps positions. I had worked in New Orleans public schools and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. I won a public-service award at the end of my senior year. Who could be more qualified, I thought confidently as I clicked to submit my application.

I got an interview with the St. Bernard Project, a disaster relief organization. Things were starting to cook. A couple of months later I got an email: “Thank you for taking the time to interview with our team …” Uh-oh, I thought. This was an inauspicious salutation. I couldn’t believe it. I had deluded myself into thinking I was all but assured a position. I pictured my new schedule, work environment and even future grocery bills. Not to worry, I thought, there are plenty more organizations just as interesting as this one.

The next day I applied to Habitat for Humanity, Project Homecoming, and Tulane Vista, which offered work similar to the St. Bernard Project. I figured as long as I kept casting my net, I had to land something.

Another series of interviews went by and another series of emails flooded my inbox. “We have appreciated getting the opportunity to learn more about your skills,” an email started. “We have been lucky to receive a high volume of extremely qualified applicants, and unfortunately, we will not be able to invite you to join our AmeriCorps Program at this time.”

After the latest round of rejections, I began to take a more sober look at the work environment in New Orleans. I talked to my friends who had applied to similar AmeriCorps programs, and they too were surprised at the popularity of these low-paying jobs. College grads, students with high GPAs, vols with strong community service experience, creative thinkers. None was guaranteed a job.

We do-gooders are a glut on the market. The number of available positions appears to be in inverse proportion to our zeal to do good. Of course the slow pace of recovery from the crash and Great Recession hasn’t helped. And the subsequent sequester of federal funding has put the squeeze on just such government-sponsored programs as AmeriCorps.

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. My parents—God bless them—have agreed to keep me on the family payroll for the time being until I figure things out. I don’t have to sell drugs (at least not yet). I don’t have to turn tricks on Bourbon Street for change. For now I’m just a hard-luck Trustafarian trying to get his first real job.

But wait a minute. Hasn’t the competition heard the news: sky-high murder rate, a rapidly eroding coastline, treacherous hurricanes, rising rents.

Beat it, all you Johnny-come-latelys. Don’t you want to go somewhere safer, somewhere with a better job market? I’ve been here for years (four, to be precise).  I’ve paid my dues.

Now, if I could just figure out a way to get paid.

Sam Tabachnik hopes to write for a living but, meanwhile, is still looking for a day job.


Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Anonymous

    This follows a theme of two articles that have come across my plate in the last 24 hours. First, there’s this: http://www.waitbutwhy.com/2013/09/why-generation-y-yuppies-are-unhappy.html, which I described to a group of friends as “slightly obnoxious but ultimately interesting.” In response, a friend sent me the following: http://aweinstein.kinja.com/fuck-you-im-gen-y-and-i-dont-feel-special-or-entitl-1333588443/.

    I really hope what you’ve written above is meant to be sarcastic or ironic, because I don’t want to hurt your feelings when quoting the author of the second article (in his response to a comment): “You want to talk to me about…entitlement? Name a streetcorner…”

    Seriously, you haven’t “paid your dues.” You’re a kid with a private school education who’s supported by your parents, living in a city where both average annual wages and median household income are consistently lower than the United States as whole; where the median income for Blacks/African Americans is half that for Whites; where 47% of Black/African American men of working age are unemployed; and where incarceration rates are nearly 4 times the national average. (All stats courtesy GNOCDC: https://gnocdc.s3.amazonaws.com/reports/GNOCDC_NewOrleansIndexAtEight.pdf)

    Yes, I know these are all problems that you want to help “solve,” but I refuse to pity your white boy-problems when you refuse to contextualize your own privilege.

  • Nolaresident

    You sound like a prime candidate for T.F.A. Just sayin’.

  • Kezia

    I understand commenter’s frustration with the tone and naiveté of this writer, especially in his limited view of what “doing good” means, but I also think it is important to give individuals like this the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy and understandable to be angry or resentful towards those who are privileged enough that they don’t have to take work that they don’t want to do in order to survive. But as someone who desperately wants this world, and especially New Orleans, to be a better place for everyone who lives here, we can’t make guys like this writer our enemies. He just graduated from college after all. I know I was super clueless in terms of privilege, labor politics, and economics when I graduated. Plus, I had absolutely no critique of non-profits or something like Americorps. We can’t just be angry at out of towners who ‘want to do good’…lest we forget that had no one come to volunteer in NOLA after Katrina we would be no where near where we are today in terms of recovery. Plus, he is pointing out a true thing, that there are more people who want to register as part of the non-profit industrial complex than can actually be indoctrinated. But I would argue that this is actually a good thing for those who want there to be real changes in our community. Because now we have ‘do-gooders’ with time on their hands…the time it takes to wake up. So Sam, my advice would be to take your jobless hours and read up about all flavors of political and community organizing, things you probably didn’t hear about at Tulane. Read up on our recent history of gentrification and the destruction of public housing, the racism and brutality of our criminal justice system, the controversies surrounding charter schools, and the ways our primary industry, tourism, exploits its workers. Don’t forget to do your research regarding our environmental situation and the ways oil companies/climate change are destroying the very basis of our existence. Don’t just accept that an organization is ‘doing good’ b/c they say they are. Don’t accept that the government is acting in your interest just b/c they claim to be. Do some soul searching and focus on what is actually important to you. Demand that your own daily life reflects your values directly and find others who want to do the same…keep learning, keep an open mind, and I hope to see you soon in the struggle!

  • Guest

    @Kezia – perhaps I’m old and out of touch – but what happened to paragraphs?

  • sheryllynnb

    Perhaps I’m old and out of touch – but what happened to paragraphs?

  • Sam

    As the writer of this article, I’d like to chime in quickly. I appreciate that you guys have felt strongly enough to comment–whether in a negative or positive light. Going to Tulane, I’ve gotten used to the whole “white privilege” attack. I understand that when you go to private school in a city like New Orleans–with the high crime rates, low literacy, broken school system etc.– you’re inevitably going to run into people who resent you because you might have been luckier to have more resources available. That being said, the “white privilege” argument is an easy way to attack someone without having to dig deep. It is easy to say, “well, he went to private school, he’s not from here, his problems are trivial.”
    In no way did I mean to knock the service industry, or say that I’m too smart for any type of job. I’m not looking for pity and sympathy. All I wanted to do with this article was to shed light on the experiences that I–and a lot of others–are going through. I realize that many people are in far worse situations, but that shouldn’t mean that my voice is silenced because of the plight of others. I don’t think I’m too good for anything, simply a recent college grad musing on job hunting in New Orleans.

  • kate

    good work on this opinion piece. best of luck out there, sam! roll wave roll

  • Anonymous


    I understand it can be frustrating to be “attack[ed]” and “resent[ed]” for being privileged. That wasn’t my reason for posting my comment; instead I commented because the piece you wrote comes across as quixotic whiny self-indulgence.

    So you need a job. So do a lot of people who haven’t benefited from your privileges. And arguably, they need jobs more than you. To claim that you’ve “paid your dues” by living in a city for 4 years and being a “committed young idealist,” is the definition of entitlement. That’s one thing that bothered me about your piece.

    Secondly, I haven’t “trivial[ized]” your problems, you’ve done it yourself. YOU told US that you’re privileged, that your parents support you. Yet you’re still complaining. I’m sorry, but get over it.

    The flip side of that is your commitment and youthful energy ARE important components of the City’s future. New Orleans does need people like you who are willing to do good for their communities. But, as I’m sure your job search has shown you, willingness can only take you so far, especially in New Orleans. Stick it out, Sam. Get to know the town a little better everyday; and let the town get to know you back. Just quit your griping in the meantime.

  • Nolaresident

    Don’t take it all to heart Sam. Now I was just teasing with you a bit with the TFA thing. Look at it this way: you’ve got a start at something since you got this piece published!

  • Dane Harris

    Interesting article. Thanks for writing.

  • scotchirish

    What seems to be an unexamined premise of the article is that do-gooding does more good than getting and spending. “The first rule for helping poor people is, don’t be one” – uncertain attribution. Or try Adam Smith, or Bernard Mandeville – I think the book is named _The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits_.

  • mb

    This is an amazing article.

    This city would be more successful if young people focused more on “for-profit” enterprises that could the community you want to serve by creating jobs and giving people meaningful opportunities at gainful employment instead of slumming in non-profit jobs while collecting food stamps to “fit in” to the community.

    I do feel for recent college grads, because I was once like you and thought earning a degree meant I had “paid my dues” and deserved a nice, comfortable life because of that. It’s even more frustrating when your parents can’t support you and you are faced with a mountain of debt which you had to take on to get that degree. But if you try hard enough I do believe there are still ways to make your own way here without “selling drugs” or “turning tricks.”

  • Molly Brackin

    As a current AmeriCorps VISTA, I’d like to point out that these positions are not a “real job.” It’s career building, networking, and a lot of time spent helping the community. Hopefully you get a “real job” out of it, but it’s not guaranteed (just like food stamps- so don’t have that delusion either). AmeriCorps is very competitive, especially in the current economic climate. You aren’t just competing against other 20-something idealists- you are competing against a wide age range and socio-economic backgrounds. I am also a Millennial, and I get sick of being accused of feeling entitled, but I have to say that you do kind of come off as such in this article. I completely understand your frustrations. After 7 years of school and a Master’s Degree I never thought it’d be so hard to land an entry-level position. But it is. Resume building doesn’t end when college ends. There are plenty of internships and volunteer opportunities out there. Experience is what employers want- not the “I paid my dues” attitude. That being said, the non-profit I work for is currently look to fill two VISTA positions. Never stop trying.

  • Abby Grosslein

    I am also an AmeriCorps VISTA and I wanted to leave a short comment on something. I think that although you’re frustrated and probably just trying to make a joke, saying that you won’t have to “turn tricks on Bourbon Street” or sell drugs to get by is whiny and childish. Although you know what it means to act like a Gen Y and say you’re not like that, you are. As someone who graduated and had trouble finding a job, I can tell you that it’s not going to be easy. But having a trust fund sure helps and you should be a little more humble about your position.

  • anon

    I’m not sure people are criticizing you or your piece because of any race- or class-based privilege you enjoy, Sam. Seems to me that folks are critical because it doesn’t appear that you are thoughtfully examining how your privilege is influencing your understanding of the current state of our city, your ambition to “save the world,” and even your perception of what “sav[ing] the world” means. (For example, I think its interesting that you are concerned your voice is being “silenced,” when in fact it is being highlighted on a website that is largely funded, run, and read by people who enjoy significant wealth and race privilege compared to most of this city). If you are interested in thinking critically about your privilege and how it may or should influence your engagement in a largely poor and Black city in the Deep South, there are a wonderful amount of resources available to you. You may want to start with Peggy Mcintosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which is available at this link: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html . Truthfully, I don’t think talking about privilege (based on class, race, gender, whatever) is an “easy way to attack someone without having to dig deep.” Rather, for folks with privilege, particularly those who want to “save” anyone or anything (again, an approach that I think is worth a healthy amount of reflection), examining our privilege is a very deep, difficult, and necessary step in the process.

  • NolaMan

    Gotta love those Obama generation millennials…Capitalism is bad. Non-profits are awesome.
    Live off my parents til I’m 35. Proud of getting food stamps. What a sad state of affairs.

  • Darlene Wolnik

    I read the article and the comments before adding mine because I am very curious about those that have arrived with so many degrees and high expectations since 2005. The writer does seem pompous, naive and although enthusiastic to “serve,” it seems he thinks that desire is equal to actually having empathy. I would suggest that the lack of awareness of those issues may have come across in those interviews (as someone who has interviewed my share of young idealists over the last 25 years, hiring many) and most likely made them look elsewhere. I’ll share a piece of advice that I follow as both an interviewer and an interviewee given to me by a very smart dragon lady of a human resources manager: hire attitude, train skill. With that in mind, commenters like Abby Grosslein would be hired over you every time. By the way Sam, the “stagnant backwater” comment and the condescending half-rebuttal of it right after is indicative of your pomposity, in case you were wondering. Having said all of that mean stuff, I wish you well and hope that this experience brings you a step closer to your wish to serve your community. Many of us started with some of the same flaws and having been smacked down from time to time by our peers and elders, have happily made a life in community work. Good luck.

  • kmsoap

    This article kind of makes me appreciate the gutter punks, who take jobs in coffee shops and delivering carryout without the delusion of saving the world.
    If it is your desire to serve and you can do so without compensation, just jump in and do it. You don’t need a structured situation. You’ve been here long enough to have spotted something that would benefit by an extra set of hands. But do keep in mind that there are many aspects of New Orleans that maintain their appeal because they have not been dosed with an outside perspective of a cure. Much has been written about the influx of eager young people and how they are “Americanizing” the city, so no need to expound here. Those of us who returned after the storm did so because there was no other place like New Orleans in all the world. It would have been much easier to start over elsewhere, but we liked what we had enough to endure the hardships of post Katrina life.
    There is a big difference between doing good works for profit and simply doing things that benefit the community because it is the right thing to do. There is a long history of service industry and lower wage tier citizens volunteering in our community, and taking a lesser job and getting to know your coworkers might show you that the sum of your life is not about what you do for compensation, but what you do with the sum total of your life. In other words, many take a job to support our service habit. Work to live, don’t live to work.
    The pleasure is in the journey.

  • Sandy Brown Brady

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I detect some tongue in cheek, self deprecating humor here. Folks, Sam is readily admitting he is privileged and blessed. I think he even realizes he is being a little whiney, but that’s how he feels and we are all entitled to our feelings, and it is a sign of maturity to realize our feelings can sometimes be a little out of whack and to poke a little fun at ourselves.

    Thank you, Sam, for your past service to the community and for your desire to continue serving. Isn’t it amazingly wonderful that there are currently more young adults like you with a DESIRE to serve, than there are positions available?!!! When people grumble about “kids today,” I think about kids like you, and like my two kids who were both AmeriCorps members, and I smile. Kids today are amazing! As a lifelong south Louisiana resident, I especially thank you for wanting to serve in the NOLA area. But if the right opportunity doesn’t come up, do consider looking in other areas – Miami; Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD; One of the flooded communities in Colorado… Unfortunately there are far too many communities that could use your enthusiasm.

    Good luck 🙂

  • kmsoap

    Perhaps I was a bit harsh, but if it is indeed Sam’s desire to serve, opportunities abound. The opportunities do not always come with compensation, but since he has indicated this is not a pressing concern, volunteer opportunities are everywhere. They don’t really require a structure at all. Clean out storm drains for the neighbors. Volunteer with a pet rescue organization. See if the young people at the Community Print Shop need a hand. Go visit people in the hospital. I could go on all day.

    Too often, young people confuse the concept of service with something that comes with a paycheck/stipend (which is a job) or something that is done because it looks good on a resume (which is career building). Now, I’m not implying any of those are bad goals, but there needs to be some integrity of definition here.

    We live in a city with a large population of desperately poor people. Some people spend their entire lives laboring in pursuits that put a roof over their heads and gruel on the table. Sam wants something different for his future, which is commendable. But if he truly wants to understand the New Orleans experience, he should take that job in a restaurant for $12K a year and do service work on a volunteer basis. That’s how a lot of us roll.

  • Robyn Ryan

    Wry and funny. Good sense of the dichotomy between privilege and the need. Keep writing. I had fun reading it.

  • Argol

    Four years is paying your dues? You have a curious accounting system.

  • disqus_ayvQwhvS6h

    Get a job in politics and make your difference there, bud.

  • nickelndime

    SAM, I am not quite sure how you got “published” in THE LENS, but obviously, your opinion matters! Either you or your family know someone in this city below the sea [because here (and you probably already figured this out), it is not what you know, it’s what you know AND who you know, and just like in Belize, can we count on you for a couple of million?]. You write well, and surely you have benefitted from your years at Tulane and whatever skills you accumulated before THAT school experience. You wouldn’t happen to be a Newman graduate, would you? That would help. But cerealously, I mean seriously, have you considered seeking employment with the Cowen Institute d/b/a Tulane University [where Newman graduate, Nolan, III (Son of Nolan, Jr/II, sitting OPSB President – was employed – briefly), or Kathy Riedlinger’s Lusher empire, or any of the State-favored nonprofit charter school CMOs (FirstLine, ReNEW, KIPP…), because you might have one helluva 3-5 years on the public payroll there (at least). BTW, have you looked into the eyes of the people who walk up and down on the neutral grounds in this city, in the sun and in the rain? They really tell the story of what is happening in this city and in this country.