Justin Dillon urges us to join in ‘A Selfish Plan to Change the World’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Since founding our online magazine and publishing house more than a decade ago, I’ve met countless people who hope to make our world a better place. I always ask them three questions:

  1. Why do you climb out of bed in the morning?
  2. How do you make it through another stressful day?
  3. And, when you look back at the end of each day—what did you do that truly mattered?” (Those are my versions of the timeless spiritual questions: Why are we here? How shall we live? And what truly matters in this world?)

If you can answer those questions—if you can describe your daily passion for living—then you are naming what activist Justin Dillon calls your “riot.” Reading his new book, A Selfish Plan to Change the World, I fell in love with that term for what amounts to the classic idea of “vocation.” What’s your special purpose? Or, many of us might say: What’s your Divine calling?

Justin asks people: What’s your riot?

Why call it a “riot”? Justin began his career as a musician who learned a lot about the world of high-energy music—clubs packed with people eager to open themselves so completely to the sensations that they feel they are unleashing a “riot.” His book’s first chapter is a dramatic recounting of the first punk concert in Ireland by the Clash in 1977, when they performed “White Riot” in Dublin. And, at the back of the crowd that night, five unknown lads felt especially transformed by the emotional, music-driven tidal wave. Who were those five lads? Well, I won’t spoil the suspense of that first chapter—so, you’ll just have to read Justin’s book to find out. It’s a terrific opening chapter!

Why pay attention to your riot? Justin’s transformative message boils down to this: Any one of us can change the world, if we can only identify the “riot” simmering inside of us. Justin firmly believes: Each of us does, indeed, have a riot somewhere inside of us. Letting it loose can be easier than you think. You don’t even have to describe your riot in clear, concise terms. You can simply and intuitively unleash your own riot—and have a lasting impact.

Why does Justin think this works? Because Justin Dillon practiced precisely what he is preaching. His “riot” was a gut-level passion for combatting human trafficking—and he launched a simple, global challenge that has made a huge impact on the darkly shrouded infrastructure of modern-day slavery.


“I consider myself ordinary.”

That’s the first thing Justin Dillon told me in our hour-long interview about his new memoir, A Selfish Plan to Change the World. And that may come as a shock to readers, because all of the promotional materials about this book make it clear that Justin now is a world-renowned activist in the realm of modern-day abolitionists. He has appeared on the major TV networks, in widely read newspapers and magazines, and before agencies of the United Nations, the U.S. government, the Vatican and Fortune 500 companies.

Today, he’s anything but ordinary!

“This book is my chance to tell the story of how everything I’m doing today began in a very ordinary place,” Justin told me. Whether or not he’s truly special now—the point is, “I wasn’t anyone special when I began all of this. I simply decided to let my riot out into the world to improve the lives of other people—and extraordinary things happened. That was true for me. It can be true for you. It can be true for the ordinary people living around you.”

In writing this book, Justin said, “I wanted to pull apart my own journey as an ordinary person. I wanted readers to understand that changing the world is a very normal activity. It’s not something that’s special. It’s not reserved for special people. When the world is substantially changed—this usually starts with someone who at some point was deemed ordinary.”

The great temptation in writing a memoir is turning oneself into the hero of the story. It’s the temptation Charles Dickens identifies in the first sentence of David Copperfield. Instead, in writing this book, Justin tried to turn that temptation on its head. He conceived of this new book as convincing us as readers that we can be the heroes.

“The problem is that we think of changing the world as such a role for superstars that a lot of us feel disqualified,” Justin told me. “We feel that what’s inside of us shouldn’t come out. We’ve created a world where we think that changing the world is for powerful rich people. Instead, I want people to know: There’s something inside of every one of us that wants to come out and it’s the way each of us can change the world.”


In the middle of Justin’s book, you will discover what may seem like a startling argument for doing good works in the world. If you are used to reading books that celebrate sacrificial heroes and selfless compassion, often called altruism, then Justin’s rethinking of these traditional concepts may come as quite a jolt. But if you have probed more deeply in our religious traditions—into concepts of justice and community—then you will find yourself right at home.

Justin’s use of the word “selfish” is his way of saying: All of us—rich or poor—have needs in life and, first, we need to recognize we’re all the same in this regard. Avoid pity, he warns. The best outcome for the world is not for the “haves” to sacrifice themselves for the “have nots,” he argues.

In fact, he includes a chapter titled “Don’t Try to Save the World,” rejecting that idea. The larger goal should be what he calls “parity.” And, if you know the roots of the world’s great religious traditions—Justin is tapping into that transformative value that goes all the way back in the Abrahamic tradition to ancient Judaism and certainly was reflected in the teachings of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad. These middle pages of his book reminded me of theologians like Dorothy DayHoward Thurman and William Stringfellow—although you won’t find their names mentioned anywhere in this book.

Here is Justin on page 64 as he begins to unfold this concept on his terms: “It’s important to understand that we were built to see mutuality between ourselves and people we don’t know. Why is this important? Because seeing others’ challenges through the lens of pity is a double mistake. Pity lacks the power of truly helping others because it is only a feeling, and it lacks the power to produce any meaning in our lives because it requires zero vulnerability on our part.”

If you follow Day or Thurman or Stringfellow, do you hear the resonance there?

What’s so refreshing and energizing about this new book is that Justin makes this argument—example after example, page after page—without the usual trappings of these great theologians. He argues his case in terms and examples and citations that a restless, religiously unaffiliated, 30-something can understand.

Why should we dare to see the world through this transformative lens of parity and mutuality? Because, Justin says, it simply makes sense that way for all of us! If we dare to glimpse the world this way, then our own lives will have new meaning. Focus that restlessness, he argues. Let your riot out into the world, he coaches. Ultimately, he argues: It’s OK to connect our own search for meaning and wellbeing to helping others.

And, in that way, Justin pitches classic vocation to a new generation.

aka what justin did

There’s another enormous narrative behind this book: It’s what Justin did.

Justin unleashed his own riot and his own cobbled-together talents and his ever-growing circle of eclectic friends to combat the timeless global evil of slavery. Readers will learn a lot about that story in the pages of this book—but this book really is not structured as a history of Justin’s genius in tackling slavery. Rather, think of this book as a chance to spend a long afternoon over coffee with Justin, listening to many of his inspiring tales from around the world—and getting one step closer to unleashing your own riot.

Want to know what Justin did? The coolest version of his story (It really is fun!) is a series of cartoon-like screens that pop up when you click the “Our Story” link on his signature website: http://slaveryfootprint.org/

That’s right. Visit the site. Look for the link toward the bottom of the home screen and the cartoons emerge, starting with: “Justin Dillon—a one-time musician who got involved in the anti-slavery movement hosting benefit concerts.”

Flash forward: You’ll learn about the 2011 launch of the website posing the question, “How many slaves work for you?” That website is SlaveryFootprint and remains very active.

Now, Justin also has moved his growing organization toward a vast analysis of commercial data from around the world. Or, as his other website (https://madeinafreeworld.com/) describes it: “We developed the largest federated database of supply chain data designed to assist companies, organizations, and institutions to protect their purchases from human rights abuses.”

That’s enough to get you going in exploring Justin’s cause—even without buying his book.

But, wait!

You really should buy the book. All the cool cartoons—and the exciting world-changing ideas for combatting slavery—will energize you. But it’s in the pages of this book that you get to have that afternoon of coffee and conversation with Justin himself. He tells you the story behind the story. You’ll learn who the five lads were at the back of that Clash concert. And you’ll learn how you can unleash your riot, too.

Toward the end of his book, Justin’s voice echoes another great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, whose Telling Secrets argued that, while telling our own story, we ultimately realize that we are part of a much larger story.

Or, as Justin writes on page 225:

“Our plans to change the world are ultimately about changing ourselves. If we genuinely pursue improving the lives of others, the quality of our lives will improve. This is a universal axiom that’s never been proven wrong. We were made to experience resistance and to participate in a bigger story. Your backstory, along with its disappointments, is what makes your offering to the world so unique. Things that bother you about the world bother you for a reason. Listen to that, and don’t let it sit idle and atrophy. That’s your soul dream, and it wants to live. No one will give you permission to change the world. Only you can do that.”


Originally published in readthespirit.com online magazine. You are free to share, reproduce or quote from this column. But, please, give us credit and a link.

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