This is Adam Fletcher Sasse in 1992 at Omaha North High School.

Why I Think We Should Examine Our Motivations to Help Others

When I was young, I was involved in programs at a church in the low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood where my family lived.

One day when I was 16 years old, some friends and I were walking down the street when we came across a couple of shiny new vans delivering a small hoard of white kids dressed in optimistic clothes to the church.

Curious, we we asked some of the youth what they were doing. Nonchalantly, they said they were here to paint this ghetto church, pointing at our fortress of hope.

When we asked if we could help, an adult with the group told us it was their project, and they’d be doing the painting. We brought our concerns to the minister, who explained they were missionaries from another state and this was mission trip, to paint our church.

That didn’t make any sense to me then, and I spent more than a decade trying to reconcile their well-meaning intention and my sense of dejection.

As an adult, I’ve met bunches and bunches of well-meaning middle class people and white people who want to save the world without ever looking at how to empower people to save themselves. These same folks rarely examine their own complicity in oppression and the ongoing slight of snobbery in volunteerism and philanthropy.

With so many people more focused on “changing the world” today, I think it’s high time that we reflect on Gandhi’s call for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world. We each have to examine our motivation.

I’ve been writing about that process for a long time without ever offering rationale for why that matters. The story I share here is meant to show one reason.

If you’re interested, check out my PETS (Personal Engagement Tip Sheets) for practical ways to look inside yourself before you try to change the world. You might also read my poem, Missionary. One of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read about examining our motivations is a speech given by Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions,” where he critically examines what it means to serve others. I also recommend Paulo Freire’s last book, which pushed me to embrace my own assumptions in new ways. Its called Pedagogy of Indignation.

After that, if you want to connect about what to do next just drop me a note.

Personal Engagement Tip Sheets by Adam Fletcher

The Crisis of Disengagement

In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.

 


Causes of Disengagement

First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.

 


What Disengagement Causes

Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.

Psychologists talk about this as a phenomenon that needs addressed through intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory and goal theory, and the need to investigate the gaps between people, as well as what possible ways to maintain or stimulate peoples’ motivations to exchange social capital. They believe environments can be intentionally maintained to enhances the self-concept, social efficacy, and a sense of volition as well as self-determination to circumvent the demise of social capital. And all that’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to continue studying it to learn more.

 


Essential Learning

However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:

  • Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
  • Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.

That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Disengagement is a solvable problem.

My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!

 


Related Articles


Adam Fletcher is available to train, coach, speak, and write about Personal Engagement across the US and Canada. Contact him to learn about the possibilities!

Join Me in Marin!

Adam Fletcher in Marin County

Join me today in San Raphael, California for a series of presentations!

  • This morning I’m talking with more than 300 middle school students focused on my talk, GET ENGAGED WITH PURPOSE, PASSION AND POWER!
  • Then this afternoon I’m talking with community members, including parents, nonprofit workers and others, focused on The Big Ideas in Youth Engagement. 
  • This evening I’m talking with Marin School District educators and others in the Bay Area focused on MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT.

Its an exciting time, and I’d LOVE to have you along!

Check out my Facebook page for pics throughout the day and more…

The Power of Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher speaking by Michael Kleven 8
Here I am talking at a youth forum in 2014.

 

Beyond the research, statistics and reports, there’s a simple truth about youth engagement: When young people experience sustained connections to the worlds within and around them, their lives become better, and the lives of those around them improve, too.

 

For a long time, I forgot to say that. Instead, I focused on the studies that said youth engagement improves youth development, helps adults get our jobs done, and can foster social justice in communities. I shared research-proven examples that identified important pillars of youth engagement, identified deep routes for youth/adult partnerships, and showed effective ways to infuse youth voice throughout organizational transformation.

 

But I left out this slice: Youth engagement saves lives. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations either; I’m talking about my own life, and the lives of many young people I’ve worked with over the years. 25 years of experience in this field has shared a lot of learning with me. One of those lessons is that when you’re young, disenfranchised, and growing up in a depressed community, youth engagement can embed three important things in your life: Purpose, Power and Passion.

 

I know that because before I was engaged, I hadn’t experienced those three things in any substantive ways. However, after I became senior patrol leader in my Boy Scout troop, I felt purpose like never before. Spending the decade before that mostly homeless with my family, there didn’t seem to be a purpose to life, a purpose for doing anything, or a purpose for breathing beyond survival. When my dad told me he and I were going to sleep on the roof of an empty Habitat for Humanity house to protect it from being vandalized, I felt empowered to impact the negative circumstances I found myself in. And after I spent three summers working with a mentor to teach drama in public housing projects in my city, I felt a passion for sharing power like never before, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

 

What’s your purpose? Where have you found power? How do you share your passion?

 

Answer those three questions and you will become engaged in what truly matters to you…

Change Takes Time

Heavenly-feeling1
Do you know how long we have to wait for this view over the Puget Sound?!?

Life isn’t about immediacy!

Sometimes I get anxious or excited, and I want my way to be the way. I get disappointed when I set myself up that way.

I’m learning not to be in the immediate gratification crowd that believes you can actualize your dreams almost the instant you form them. When I was younger and spent so much energy advocating for youth involvement, this is what I believed: If I trained enough people, changed enough policies and moved enough mountains, things would change for young people immediately.

That’s not true.

Honoring the process of change requires accepting the boundaries of time. Moving hearts and minds takes more than education, it takes time and acceptance. People and systems and communities rarely change immediately, on the turn of a dime. Instead, they have to take their time. That doesn’t mean we don’t incentivize or motivate or move what we can, when we can. It does mean accepting our role in the ways things work.

It seems to me that the universe takes it’s time. Sometimes it allows me to see the fruits of my life and other times it holds back the results until another, undetermined time further on down the road. Maybe I get to see the outcomes, maybe I don’t – mostly that’s not up to me to worry about.

Instead, I look to nature for evidence: Trees almost always have more leaves than they technically need, and that’s why they’re able to serve the planet by processing CO2. The ocean laps too many waves, and that’s why it’s capable of wearing away the weight of the land while pulling beaches and seaside cliffs into the depths. The sun burns too brightly, and that’s why life is so abundant on this world. It all works in abundance, and I get to trust my life will, too.

By the same token, all of those things take time and processes, and nothing works independently of anything else. I don’t know if sunflowers require patience while their seeds germinate over the wintertime. I don’t know if birds simply have to trust that they’ll know where they’re going when they get their after their long migrations. But I do know that I have to let go and let the universe do its thing, work in it’s time, again and again, over and over.

If I look to the world around me for fulfillment, I’ll always be disappointed, because the world around me doesn’t work on my cues! But when I take a look inside me and find contentment in who I am, how I am, with the way things are instead of how I want them to be, then my life gets easier.

The old turtle in Kung Fu Panda might’ve said it best: “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery; today is a gift – that’s why its called the present.” I get to learn to appreciate the gifts! That’s my work these days…