Michelle Kline is a member of our local community here, in North Carolina. We reached out to her after our last post about the impact your work is having on your community.
Michelle’s story is a great example of how a little bit of curiosity, vulnerability, and imagination can multiply the impact of our work.
If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, How can one person’s work make any difference in the world? and felt uncertainty in the response, this story is for you.
It’s a difficult question to face honestly. Common sense tells us that it’s okay to let other people work on those complicated cultural and societal issues. After all, we’re just one business. We’re just one employee. Just one committee member. Just one student.
But what if the reason we don’t believe in our individual impact is because we’re not seeing the whole picture clearly?
This story is about waking up to the big picture. Or more specifically, about the 3 mental shifts that have to happen in order for us to see our impact at all.
We’re honored to share Michelle’s story with you here, on Counter-Stories.
We hope you share it and continue to follow along.
You’re Needed—Whether or Not You See It.
Michelle was listening when her roommates—both social workers—would have conversations about their work. The things they talked about seemed so...real. The issues they discussed were playing out in real time, in their city. Michelle had begun to feel like her work and her life existed elsewhere, within a bubble.
At the time, Michelle knew she wanted to move toward people, to somehow contribute to the wellbeing of others. A Masters in Social Work (MSW) felt like a good step to take.
Only a few weeks into her social work program, Michelle had an ‘oh shit’ moment: “There is so much need. And there are so many ways that I’ve actively or passively contributed to it.”
This was Michelle’s FIRST perspective shift:
There is, whether we’re aware or not, a need for positive social impact. And it would be better for all of us if that impact was intentional.
It’s Never Just Business.
As a part of her MSW coursework, Michelle matched up with a clinical internship. She spent her clinical hours shadowing and working with individuals who had experienced trauma, largely from assault, abuse, and other forms of violence.
Michelle realized that she was drawn to the macro-level systems that support these individuals. She jumped on a project—the opening of a future Forsyth County Family Justice Center—that would deepen and extend that support in the city.
Meanwhile, Michelle realized something else: Her ‘side hustle,’ a pet care business, had the potential to grow. She was inspired by the entrepreneurial challenge and wanted to work on it more.
For a year, Michelle focused on her classes and her business, all the while feeling like ‘a fake social worker.’ Business didn’t just feel like a different field—It felt like an entirely separate reality from the world of social work. Until she took a step back and reflected on her business:
Ardmore Dog Walking (ADW) was caring for animals.
ADW was giving others peace of mind and permission to be fully present where they were—not worried or feeling guilty about not being home.
ADW had created jobs. It was providing steady wages and enough margin for people to thrive in their other ventures.
ADW was connecting a community. Her clients saw her employees as an extension of their families. Many had formed outside-of-work friendships. Michelle knew far more of her neighbors than she had ever known before.
Michelle had her SECOND major perspective shift:
Her business was having a deep social impact. Business and social work could aim toward the very same thing.
The Outcome Isn’t Fixed.
Michelle was getting ready to graduate. She faced a decision: Look for a full-time nonprofit job (the most natural career path for an MSW) or...something else. She wasn’t sure what else existed, but she did know this:
A teacher once assigned her MSW class a ‘resource allocation’ project. The gist was ‘These are the resources you have and this is the need. You’ll have to make tough decisions because there are rarely enough resources.’ Michelle’s first thought: ‘Why aren’t we talking about how to get more resources?’
As a business owner, Michelle had learned that businesses not only have, but can create resources.
This led to her THIRD major mental shift:
Resources aren’t limited. There are strategic, innovative, creative ways to fund the positive impact you envision. There’s a way to ‘make a bigger pie.’
We asked Michelle for an example.
The first thing that came to mind was Patagonia:
Patagonia is a company that makes high-end outdoors-wear meant to enhance your outdoors experience. The company cares about environmental impact; it’s in their mission statement. So they decided to take their business a step further and created the ‘Worn Wear’ program to take back their used clothing. They repair and recycle what they receive instead of the alternative: Patagonia-wearers throwing slightly damaged or old clothing in a landfill.
If we were to give up a fixed scarcity mindset, we’d find (with a bit of creativity): There is abundance.
Your Mission, Should You Choose It.
In the final weeks of her MSW, just as Michelle had begun to envision new ways to intersect social impact with business in this community—everything stopped.
She was attacked by a young man on a public walking path. He stabbed her in the back twice and punctured her arm in three places. She was taken to the hospital, where she was told the physical wounds would heal naturally, with proper care. But in an instant, Michelle had gone from advocate to survivor.
Michelle encouraged us to include this part of her story because she’s experienced the identity shift from advocate to survivor as an even more compelling motivator for social impact than the mental paradigm shifts about how it all gets done. That horrific experience has deepened the intricacy and urgency of what she means when she says ‘social impact.’ Having known, first-hand, what she knows, there is no going back. There is no notion of work without social implication.
“You can have hope and resiliency in equal measure while recognizing hard things are going on. There’s a place for creativity and innovation there. They can sit together in tension.”
For the non-social worker, social issues may feel daunting—even just thinking about the things that would have to happen in order to start a project or create a secondary business model, etc., etc. It is far easier to write a check or attend an event.
But Michelle reminded us that the best ideas are simple.
Look, again, at your mission.
How could we help?
What could our community look like?
Who are the experts that we can learn from to do better?
Michelle admits that it’s easier to turn fully away than to pivot toward the questions.
But right there—where we pause, however uncomfortably, to ask new questions—is right where stories get good. By ‘good’ we mean bigger, and the bigger your story, the bigger your part. By which we mean:
Welcome. You are a creative, important person with major impact.
And you’re on.
Note from Steve
A great way to continue thinking about your social impact is to ask: What would your community be like if your business ceased to exist? How can your organization start intentionally pursuing direct social impact?
Also: You can also follow Michelle’s daily writings on the intersection of social work, business, social innovation, and entrepreneurship here.
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at email@example.com.