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activities civic engagement community engagement community service personal engagement Reflection social change society youth engagement

Infinite Ripples, or, Standing WITH Other People

This is a story of how I came to understand the infinite nature of the ripple effect.

When I was a teen I lived in a “disadvantaged” neighborhood in North Omaha, Nebraska. The big old Methodist church on the corner, Pearl Memorial, hosted afterschool and evening programs for kids. I attended on Sundays. Each summer the activities in the church ramped up all week long, and I worked for a nonprofit in the basement during those months each year, too. I spent a lot of time in that gothic throwback, with it’s towers and faux parapets, gigantic sanctuary ceiling and bright, sunny classrooms.

It was here that I first consciously learned about missionary perspective, community engagement, and social change. The well-meaning Methodists who attended the church were mostly older whites from the surrounding neighborhood where White Flight drew generations of middle class white people away. In the meantime a new generation of working class and lower class African American families moved in, and lower class whites, like my family, lived there, too. I was 16 when I first read Enlightenment thinker Charles de Montesquieu’s grand declaration, “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them,” and I felt I was growing up in this reality.

Every summer I was there the church experienced a “Running of the Volunteers”. It seemed like dozens of strangers would fill the building all summer long, fixing it up and playing with kids in the outreach programs, every day between 10am and 2pm. In reality the whole process probably only happened a half dozen times in the four years I attended the church, but it seems like dozens in my memory. The building seemed to hum, filled with the newness of clean work clothes and propped up by shiny white 15 passenger vans that came from another part of the city, or another part of the country. These were exotic people to us, with their shiny faces and new stuff. Their very presence confused me.

My friends and I would stalk the work zones where these people had set up shop. More than once we asked if we could help, and every time we were asked to leave “their” work spaces, and asked to leave the volunteers alone. Oh, the confusion!

It took me years to learn what this situation taught me. I found a fast friend when I discovered Australian Aboriginal Lila Watson’s quote in which she said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come to because your liberation is bound up in mine, we can work together.” Her rejection of horizontal need-oriented relationships spoke to my center. I wanted servers to acknowledge the inherent benefit they receive from serving others; I wanted those served to see they give something in addition to receiving. Soon after I read a speech by revolutionary Ivan Illich in which he skewered volunteerism overseas called, “To Hell With Good Intentions.” I knew I was on a right track.

I began developing teaching models to explain this, first creating a Ladder of Volunteer Participation that named the different ways volunteers engage in the communities where they serve. It intrigued me to consider there were different positions in this inherently hierarchical perspective. I taught this model actively for a few years, and received considerable interest from AmeriCorps volunteers and others who wanted to understand their own assumptions and beliefs about why they were doing what they were doing.

However, I grew uncomfortable with the ease with which learners would read through the piece and then lob it aside. This was pushed further when I read an article in The Atlantic magazine by the great  Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, who wrote,

“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

It was from Galeano that I began to understand that different people come to serve others through different motivations and perceptions of the people they serve. Reflecting on that, I came across the idea that there were a range of perspectives that informed our service toward others. In the mid 2000s I started teaching about these Perspectives, and in 2005 I created a handout called “Check Yourself: What’s Your Motive?” that alluded to my purpose in teaching people to examine their assumptions.

I continued to grow and learn. Toward 2008 I became increasingly interested in how these perspectives held true throughout our society in dozens of different kinds of relationships. In my continuing studies of the power dynamics between adults and young people, I found the model rang true. I expanded on the main perspectives I identified earlier, and created a page on The Freechild Project website called Perceptions of Youth. This allowed me to continue teaching the model, but with a quicker focus for students who wanted to learn specifically about how the perceptions of children and youth informed adults biases against young people.

Over the last year I have been further developing my own perspectives about serving others. I became interested in the reciprocal benefits of service, and how they affected the giver particularly. I discovered a rich vein of interest in the wider world focused on personal engagement, and my own interest in what motivated it was piqued. Last year I read an interview with Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been imprisoned by her own government for more than a decade because of her leadership. In the course of that confinement she was asked by a reporter about the sacrifices she made, and she replied,

‎”I do not believe that I’m sacrificing. In fact, I feel very uneasy when others used the word sacrifice to describe my life. It sounds like I’m demanding returns for my investments. I chose to walk on this journey, because I solely believed in it and wholeheartedly decided to do so, and I’m willing and able to pay for the consequences…”

This spoke to the core of me. I continued my search, and have been writing about Heartspace for the last several months in response to what I have found. I have more to learn, but this much I know: There is nothing we do in this entire world that is purely altruistic. Every single interaction we have in this world is a transaction that imparts, imports, and exports, and you cannot give something to another person without receiving something in return. That is the basis of establishing a perspective of standing with, not for, other people: realizing that in every single interaction there is an exchange. That’s the basis of the humongous web we are all woven into, relationship. Or if we all live in a gigantic pond, the endless ripples affected by every single one of us every single day in every single way. We live in an infinitely beautiful mosaic of connections, each equal to the other, none greater or worse.

Does that change the way you see the world? It has for me.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

By Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker, writer, trainer, researcher and advocate who researches, writes and shares about education, youth, and history.

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