A lot of us working with youth today came from hard times. Whether we came from adversity or trauma, or if we grew up in challenging ways, we have to take care of our heart. The times we live in today are conscientious and aware of how these hard times affect us. This article is about surviving youth. Your youth.
What Is Your Youth?
Your youth is two things: First, it’s the time you lived when you weren’t seen as a child or as an adult. Second, it’s the young people you are meaningfully connected to right now, whether they’re your children, students, program participants or otherwise. Youth isn’t “yours” in terms of possession; it’s yours because you are engaged in youth, whether we’re talking about the time of your life or the people you serve.
You need to survive your youth if it’s affecting your adulthood in negative, hard or challenging ways.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve facilitated self-care learning for thousands of teachers, youth workers and other adults who work with youth. Many people have shared that their awareness of the adverse childhood experiences they lived through as young people shine through in their current jobs. They specifically work to support young people growing up with abuse, household challenges and/or neglect, and they’re very committed. These people are surviving youth.
3 Ways to Survive Your Youth
Many people are surviving the challenges of their younger years at the same time they’re working to support young people. When we work within these realities, we have to be precautious, patient and promising for ourselves.
Here are three ways I teach people to survive their youth.
Be Precautious. Your experiences make you relatable and grant you powers of reciprocity. However, they can make you vulnerable, too. If you haven’t addressed your childhood trauma intentionally, if you haven’t addressed your wounds and sought healing, then be precautious. Even if you have dealt with your suffering and challenges but still hyper-react, overreact or otherwise act disproportionately to the situations, you might need to continue being precautious. Take care of your heart.
Be Patient. While you may want to challenge your own inabilities or charge into changing yourself and the world, you should be patient. Your calmness and self-control can be a model for the young people you work with, however you positively express them. If you feel anxious, excited or too ambitious, be patient and know that the challenges of your younger years are teaching you right now. Allow calmness to hold your heart.
Be Promising. Seeing a greater picture, understanding the wider world and knowing the best possibilities are the best way to be promising to yourself. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t promise things you can’t follow through. However, hold your heart accountable, listen to your intuition and keep yourself true and honest with what you know best. Set the bar for your heart and keep yourself accountable.
Surviving your youth is essential to being a hopeful, supportive and effective adult ally to children and youth. The steps above can help you understand where to begin doing that. There are a number of great resources emerging in the field, and more organizations are supporting their staff dealing with their trauma as well as promoting trauma informed care throughout education, youth services, at home, throughout communities, and beyond.
However, ultimately you need to deal with your youth. Soothing the inner challenges can only go so far, and these steps are simply triage for the complex wounds you might have. Deal with those challenges, get help and move forward in your career, your family and throughout your life.
After working in hundreds of communities nationally, I am primed to explore this more. Call me to talk about my consulting, training and speaking services at (360) 489-9680.
Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.
“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.
“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.
That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.
For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.
I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”
When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:
Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.
Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.
Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.
A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.
To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
An EGOsystem of Education
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Four Phases of Transition
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
1) The Control Phase
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.
2) The Competition Phase
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.
3) The Connection Phase
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.
4) The Collaboration Phase
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
An ECOsystem of Education
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.
“If you have to write about it, you don’t know what humility is.”—My dad
Let me start by saying that I don’t know what humility is. For more than a dozen years I’ve consciously struggled with the word and the concept of humility, and I’m still not sure. I do know this: If you want to change the world, humility is definitely a requirement.
The dictionary says humility is simply defined as the quality of being humble. It also says that to be humble is to lower something in importance.
This means developing and maintaining a modest view of our own importance in public and personal regards to who we are and what we do. Sometimes, we are given struggles that humiliate us, cause us to get humble and send us down the road with compromise in our hearts. That is the core of humility: Accepting that everyone, everywhere screws up and is screwed up.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in the world, and that doesn’t lessen our responsibility to make a difference in the world. It does mean that while we’re working for social change, we shouldn’t be arrogant. Being proud and selfish can mean not seeing our faults and hoarding our accomplishments without sharing props with the people we worked with. That selfishness is typical in a lot of activist campaigns, where peoples’ egos and conceits become obvious. Its selfish to think the world owes you anything; to think the good guy always wins; to think the world works in a balance that will benefit you particularly.
Being right is the enemy of understanding. There’s a difference between knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know; one suffocates curiosity while the other leaves the door open to possibilities. In the same way that being perfect is the enemy of being good, so it holds true that being right is the enemy of being humble. Screwing up and being wrong, as well as tripping and falling, are all pathways to humility. They won’t automatically make you humble, but they can help you get there quickly.
“Humility is a sign of self-confidence; it means we’re secure enough to alter our views based on new information and new circumstances.”—Peter Wehner
Despite all the things we may have accomplished in the past, there will always be opportunities ahead. Our ideas, activities, outcomes and struggles do not make us better than anyone else, more correct than anyone else, or less faulty than anyone else. Being humble means acknowledging our mistakes, accepting responsibility for our inabilities, and working in earnest to make progress within ourselves as well as throughout the world around us.
Its a leap for some people to understand, but just to check whether you’re paying attention, I’ll say the reality for me: True humility means accepting our equality with everything else on Earth, including past and present, old and young, rich and poor, human and animal and insect and plant and dirt. All of it.
No matter what happens, in trying to change the world we should always really, really try to be respectful towards everyone, all the time. Humility is an absolute requirement for changing the world. Look at yourself honestly, strip yourself of your pride, puffed up chest and closed eyes. Look at yourself and what you’re trying to do and allow yourself to develop a humble attitude. Then, correct your defects, ask others for help and keep taking action to make the world a better place.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our successes, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be arrogant or boastful. Don’t brag. Feel quiet confidence, because in the long run your character will speak for itself. C.S. Lewis once wrote “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” Understanding that is a pathway towards being humble.
5 Ways to Be Humble
Learn to be humble and always strive to become a better person.
Find your moral compass and strive for constant conscious contact with what matters most to you.
Stay humble while you’re trying to change the world.
Stop being selfish and start being selfless.
If you want to change the world, be humble.
Oh, and if you think you are humble, you’re not. If someone else tells you you’re humble, you lose it. If you are striving for humility everyday in every way in everything you’re doing, you cannot become humble.
More than a decade ago, I attended a seminar where the facilitator talked about clients’ walls. They felt stonewalled by someone they were trying to reach out to. Focusing on in-person meetings, using the phone, email and even social media, this facilitator shared 5 ways to destroy client walls and overcome reluctant prospects.
From the start, I felt there was something wrong with all of this.
Since 2001, I’ve been working with organizations around the world to understand their clients. Studying research carefully, I’ve also collected hundreds of stories of when people said they felt most engaged in things they needed to do.
From my work, I’ve learned that when client walls go up, the problem isn’t them—its us. That can be hard for people to understand or accept, so I want to share a tool I have created to think differently about it.
Following is my Engagement Box. It can be used by anyone trying to connect with other people, including salespeople, managers, teachers, social workers, politicians and others. It can be especially useful when client walls go up!
Description of the Engagement Box
The Engagement Box is made of four walls, and divided in four by an x axis and a y axis. The x axis is marked “Traditional” at the left, and “Nontraditional” at the right. The y axis marked “Convenient” at the top, and “Inconvenient” at the bottom. This tool is from your perspective as the user.
Each quadrant of the Engagement Box should be labeled accordingly:
Between “Traditional” and “Convenient”, the quadrant should be marked “Traditional & Convenient Engagement”;
Between “Traditional” and “Inconvenient”, the quadrant should be marked “Traditional & Inconvenient”;
Between “Nontraditional” and “Convenient”, mark the quadrant “Nontraditional & Convenient”;
In the last quadrant between “Nontraditional” and “Inconvenient”, mark the box “Nontraditional & Inconvenient”.
Using the Engagement Box
To use the Engagement Box, the first thing you should do is pull out two blank pieces of paper. On the first, draw a line down the middle.
In the left column, write all of the things—everything—you currently do to engagement your clients, whether they’re potential customers, employees, students, food stamp recipients, or others. Write all of this on a piece of paper.
In the right column, brainstorm all of the things you could do to engage your current and potential clients and list them. Remember that in a brainstorm there are no dumb ideas, so don’t inhibit yourself.
When you’ve completed that, take out the blank page and draw the Engagement on it, filling the entire page. Follow the directions above.
On the second sheet, copy the graphic of the Engagement Box detailed above.
Then, read through the columns you’ve written already. On each, circle the items you want to keep doing or start doing.
Then take those items, and write them into the corresponding quadrants of the Engagement Box using the following questions:
Is this activity something that is easy for you? Then it belongs to the “Convenient” axis.
Is this activity something you or your organization has always done? Then it belongs to the “Traditional” axis.
If an activity is “Convenient” and “Traditional” then it goes in the quadrant you’ve labeled “Convenient & Traditional”. Do this in all four quadrants.
Its NOT All About You
When you’ve finished filling out all four quadrants, take a quick tally. Are most of your current activities in the “Convenient & Traditional” quadrant? That means that you’re doing most things for yourself and not for your client. The reason their walls are going up is that you are not meeting them where they are at. Instead, you’re insisting they come to where you are.
Differently, if all of your brainstormed activities are in the “Inconvenient & Nontraditional” quadrant, then you are trying to meet people where they are.
Engaging with your clients, whoever they are, is not all about you—but a lot of it is. As I’ve led thousands of people through this activity, I have seen eyes open and heard the power of learning to see things a new way. Suddenly, business owners have seen where they’re losing customers, principals have seen why students are dropping out, and managers have seen why they can’t retain employees.
By shifting your perspective from meeting your own needs to actually meeting your clients’ needs, you can also see other effects. You might grow compassion, discover empathy and feel reciprocity. You could also stop some of your bad habits and rejuvenate your perspectives towards the people you serve and work with everyday.
Teddy Roosevelt once wrote, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Ultimately, the Engagement Box can teach you how to show people how much you care.
A lot of people reduce critical thinking to simply telling people that what they’re doing is not enough or inadequate. That’s not what its about.
Instead, critical thinking engages people in identifying their assumptions, examining their beliefs, and supporting their personal development before, during, and after their actions.
Instead of right and wrong, critical thinking suggests we help shepherd individuals towards a grey space that is neither: Social change is about everyone benefiting. While that may murky the waters a lot of people wade through in order to volunteer, it doesn’t exclude anyone; rather, it builds their personal capacity to be successful.
I think all organizations that engage volunteers have an obligation to engage them in critical self-examination, especially about the service they are seeking to embark in.
I have promoted structural change for years is because it can be less threatening to encourage volunteers to look at change the policies, programs, and activities within a community, rather than to look at themselves. However, even that structural work, done absent critical reflection, is devoid of the type of solidarity I suggest organizations seek to foster within and between volunteers and service recipients.
I first felt the impact of noblesse oblige in my own community growing up as a teenager in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. It was one particular summer when groups of volunteers repeatedly showed up at our community center to do projects, excluding me and my friends from helping out when we asked to, that I realized they were serving themselves more than us: by painting, leading games, cooking food, and doing work in our lives they were trying to feel better about themselves.
From that place, and then three years of AmeriCorps and 13 years of a nonprofit career that I devised a model to illustrate motivations for service in 2001. Since then, I have worked with thousands of people to help them identify if they are motivated by pity, sympathy, empathy, or solidarity in order to serve others.
It was that model that showed me that we must encourage volunteers to actively seek to change their perceptions about service and volunteerism (and thus, their attitudes and their lives). Doing anything less actually puts many organizations in the position of perpetuating a type of hypocrisy that damns their best intentions. I think we can do better than that- and that we have to, for the sake of our society.
For me, that means a course of activity that might begin with a volunteer contacting an organization and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Immediately, the organization provides the volunteer with a brochure or a web address that asks five critical questions about volunteering for them, to the effect of,
“Why do you want to volunteer?”
“Who do you think benefits by you volunteering with our organization?”
“What difference do you think volunteerism makes in your life,”
…And so forth, sussing out the motivations for volunteerism.After that the organization would train each individual volunteer according to their motivation: The person who comes from a place of pity or sympathy would embark on a course of activities that would help them identify how they can relate to and engage with service recipients in a more empathetic way; the person who comes from empathy would be driven towards solidarity.
In this way we can take volunteerism out of the rut it is in, and move a lot of effort to a brand new place!
I live inthe little city of Olympia, Washington. Its tucked away at the bottom of the Puget Sound, connected to the ocean but seeming a world apart from a lot of America. That is, until two days ago when two African American men were shot by a white officer.
Suspected of stealing beer from a grocery store, they were identified as suspects and confronted by a solitary officer. He has reported that one of them attacked him with a skate board, and to defend himself he shot the assailant. The second suspect was shot soon afterwards.
Overall, young Olympia regards itself to be a liberal group in a generally progressive town. The incident of a white officer shooting two black men for stealing beer doesn’t bode well, and consequently there was a march within 18 hours of the incident featuring many, many white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice in this case.
Much the same as the protesters yesterday, I am all concerned with the obvious pattern of police militarization, the criminalization of African American men, the school-to-prison pipeline and other clearly heinous acts of prejudice and discrimination against people of color by white people in America today.
However, I think we’re missing something.
One month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X said,
“All my life, I believed that the fundamental struggle was Black versus white. Now I realize that it is the haves against the have-nots.”
The fact is that it’s a white power structure that formed, molded and sustained the rotten economy of haves and have-nots in the US, and now more than ever, worldwide. Malcolm X wasn’t releasing anyone of their responsibility for the despicable condition we find ourselves in, and I refuse to as well. My fellow people of European descent appear largely incapable of imagining and implementing a world without inequity and disparity.
That said, the way forward is not based on race, per se. Its based on unity and umoja between races focused on the economic structure enforced by white privilege. Using our hands, hearts, minds and souls, we have to work together to dismantle prejudice, whether it is economic, social, cultural, racial, educational or otherwise.
Just beyond that, all of us everywhere on this planet have to realize that there really is no “them” and “us” – there’s only us. We actually are all in this together, and we are all completely interdependent upon one another.
But between here and there, I don’t think there’s a crime in recognizing culpability, complicity and connectivity. It all started somewhere, its going somewhere and almost all of us are going along with it, until we don’t anymore.
What we’re missing is that each of us, no matter what our race, has a role in doing something right now. If you’re a white mom at home, go meet people of color and introduce your kids to them. If you’re a person of color going to a predominantly white college, go meet some white people you never thought you would and just talk to them without educating them on race or economics, just listen to them. If you’re a Irish person in France go spend your money in businesses belonging to Middle Eastern immigrants. If you’re young, hold a sit-in in your school and teach people about overthrowing the white wealth structure that benefits white people – no matter what your skin color is. If you’re old, listen to some conscious hip hop and really let it teach you.
No matter who you are, DO something. Let’s stop acting so innocent through our ignorance and inaction, and start acknowledging our complicity and responsibility. Only then can we meet James Baldwin’s insistence that we can,
“insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others … we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
We HAVE TO change the history of the world. Starting… NOW.