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What a Zombie Apocalypse Can Teach Us About the Fight for Social Justice

Here are three lessons social-impact leaders can learn from Ellie — the 14-year-old protagonist in “The Last of Us” — for dealing with these increasingly challenging times.

Lately, the radical right’s attacks on personal freedoms, inclusive education and other so-called “woke” policies seems to be mushrooming. Those of us on the side of progress, don’t despair; this will not be “The Last of Us.” We need only look to Ellie — the 14-year-old video game hero turned star of the hit HBO series — for inspiration to light the way. Here are three lessons social-impact leaders can learn from this spunky teen in what might feel like the end of times.

Take one issue at a time

It’s not uncommon for those of us working in social-impact communications to wake up in the morning and crisis-binge our newsfeeds. Consider the current moment: A federal judge in Texas will soon rule on whether to ban Mifepristone — an FDA-approved drug that has helped facilitate safe and effective abortions for the last 20 years. In addition, Walgreens has caved under GOP pressure and announced it will no longer dispense Mifepristone in 21 states — including some where medical abortion is still legal — prompting states including California to cut ties with the pharmacy chain.

This continued chipping away of our reproductive rights is sharing airtime with news out of Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has mandated that public universities drop all diversity, equity and inclusion curricula. And in Tennessee, a new bill passed banning public drag performance. Conservative legislative gains such as these can leave those of us at the helm of social-justice campaigns feeling overwhelmed and thinking: All this hard work can't be for nothing. So, what can we do?

Be like Ellie: Recognize that you can’t take on infected zombies, armed militias and cannibalistic cults all in one go. If Ellie teaches us anything, it’s that we can punch above our weight — but only when we focus on one thing at a time. Some days, it might feel like the only thing you can accomplish is what’s right in front of you. And that’s okay. Trust your instincts and your inner Ellie fire. Swearing like a sailor is also worth a try.

Stay fiercely loyal

In today’s social-impact consultancies, project assignments comprise the majority of the year’s engagements — which means that if we’re doing this right, our contact lists are growing by the quarter. Take a cue from Ellie's unique relationship management style and stay fiercely loyal. Of all the clients you’ve worked with; you probably have many Joels (Ellie’s guardian). So, when one of them is recognized in the media or on LinkedIn, take the time to send a note. A heartfelt congratulations from past collaborators helps maintain ties with your favorite changemakers. Even if there was tension during the project or conflicting strategies, don’t let that stop you. Time and distance can yield clarity — allowing all parties to share mutual respect in the fight for good.

The nice thing about maintaining relationships in the social-impact space is that when we’re faced with tragedy such as the recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey or yet another mass shooting here at home, you could find yourself in a position to help. You might have close contacts in relevant issue areas whom you can call and brainstorm ways to support their work. Impromptu Zoom meetings in critical moments could lead to some of your most rewarding and impactful campaigns.

Take a brain break

Readers of Sustainable Brands®, we don’t need to tell you that this is hard work. It requires compassion yet resolve, strong points of view yet unflagging humility. And when the headwinds get Wyoming-strong — when more discriminatory legislation passes or when more Black authors get pulled from public school shelves — you might feel so discouraged that you question whether you can do as Joel says and keep finding something new to fight for. Here’s the key: Sometimes you just need to take a beat and page through your dog-eared joke book. Even on days when you need to be on high alert, when your journey feels interminable, when the perils of your project lurk at every turn, give your brain a break. You’ll come back restored and ready to work. It’s times like these when every social-impact consultant must ask the hard question: What did the green grape say to the purple grape?

(Breathe, you idiot.)