This week I have been reflecting on legacy. So often we are asked what legacy we want to leave in the world. I wonder if this expectation is a huge burden or if it is the right question to ask in the first place.

Then I think about those we celebrate. Those who are renowned for their actions, feats of endurance, scientific breakthroughs, arts, culture, politics, and activism. And of course, individuals who have amassed enormous wealth. People with great legacies are perceived at the top of the pyramid, self-made, alone.

Legacy is created by the collective because no vision can be achieved alone. 

Mary Carty

Dreams need backing like a spark to a flame. Without kindling and firewood, it extinguishes easily. Unfortunately, our Western perspective highlights the founder, the CEO, the genius artist, the scientist, and not the ecosystem that contributed to their success.

The sad reality is that the people behind the vision are largely forgotten. I often think about the teams of people who gave their all to make companies and businesses successful, as well as those who give everything for civil rights, systems change, new laws, health care reform, and activism. The early days are always the riskiest and take an enormous leap of faith.

Throughout history, we’ve held a pretty myopic view of success. Those we celebrate most often fall into well-worn categories. Usually privileged white males of a certain age. The accomplishments achieved by others are largely forgotten, disregarded, and in many cases claimed and attributed by those same individuals for their own gain. After all, the power and influence is in their hands.

Resources on this planet are finite. Not all ideas get supported, championed, or funded, particularly if you’re a minority or a woman and if your idea or vision is a threat to the status quo. For some time now, curators, historians, and activists have led the way in redressing this balance, unearthing, attributing, and sharing forgotten histories, bringing them the light they so richly deserve. 

When I think about legacy, I think about the values they encompass and whether these legacies continue to support systems of inequality. Those who have legacies to bestow in the form of influence, scholarships, foundations, and grants confer power and dominance to those they support; who is included and who is excluded. 

Education, professional bodies, and programs often depend on the largesse of benefactors to cover the financial burden. The power wielded by wealthy individuals can continue to support inequality for generations, culminating in cultures of exclusion and lip service to diversity, equality, and inclusion. Systems and practices of this nature are difficult to change being ingrained in the very institutions by which they fund. The charity and the third sector, as well as the arts and culture, face similar ethical dilemmas. 

When I think of legacy, I think about it in four ways:

Firstly, being remembered, celebrated, and revered for actions, behaviors, or traits that had purpose and value to the community, country, or the world. 

Secondly, financial legacy benefits stakeholders, nature, children, culture, education, and research.

Thirdly, champions of change, often against great odds, addressing racism, inequality, and speaking up for those less fortunate, changing laws, spearheading movements, educating the masses, changing the conversation. Often these actions were viewed as suspect, the majority not ready for the change these individuals embodied. Very often, their actions came with a hefty price; jail, exile, or even death.

Lastly, I think about family legacy. Families have legacies all of their own be it community service, professions, faith, and the promotion of cultural practices; music, art, food, and language. For very many people, staying true to their family’s values and legacy gives a sense of purpose and pride. 

For me though, it’s the untold legacies, those quiet everyday acts of kindness and goodwill that may never be known. The bag of groceries left at the neighbour’s door, a chat with a friend in need, paying forward for a coffee, or volunteering with a local youth group. 

Can We Dictate What Our Legacy Is?

Maybe we can, maybe we can leave instructions. But human memory by its very nature is short. Times change, and perceptions change. The things we lauded and held sacrosanct before, no longer hold the same sway. Values, understanding, and societal norms change, and that’s a good thing. Names over buildings are removed due to their links to slavery for example, and new names are added above the door. Portraits in galleries of great white men suddenly become more inclusive with the addition of women and people of colour. 

What We Leave Behind

Maybe for now, don’t stress over what your legacy will be. Instead, do all you can to ensure more voices are admitted to the table:

These are complex questions that deserve our attention. We cannot say we are changing the world if we continue to reinforce the status quo.

Your legacy is defined by others, not you.

Mary Carty

By Mary Carty