Monday, April 29, 2013

From "I'm Shy" to "Let's Dance" in 60 Seconds

Last week, we hosted two separate groups for a day of Workcamps.  One group was made up of 12 students from China who had just graduated high school there and were part of a cultural exchange program before heading to college (some in the US, but most back in China).  This group arrived early and headed out to work on the beginnings of a project to turn a neglected bit of land into a healthy community space with a tiered rain garden, community garden and basketball court (this will be a project we will be a part of for the next few years).

The other group, from Harford Friends School in MD, consisted of the entire 8th grade class (all six of them), their Head of School, and one of the parents.  They proceeded to go from William Penn House to assist a remarkable woman, Janey Boyd, who has been addressing the problems of hunger in DC since the 1950's. Their work this day was to help unload food that had been gleaned from a local farm and package it for families to pick up at the school where the truck met the group, illustrating the fact that there is good nutritional and fresh food available if we can just get folks to help get it from farm to table.

When it came time to consider what to do for dinner, I thought of simplifying things by having the groups share dinner.  I was a bit unsure how this would play out.  There were differences in both age and culture, as well as language.  But these groups were sharing the house for the night, and Community is one of the testimonies that guides our work at William Penn House, so let's just have faith in it, I thought.
At first, it looked like the groups were going to share food, but sit separately.  I encouraged the Harford students to split in two groups at the tables we have.

"I'm shy" was the immediate response of one of the students, but they took the suggestion anyway.  Within minutes, what was a quiet room with the exception of some subdued Chinese language conversations became a boisterous room as people talked about everything from video games to dance.  The energy and spirit lifted as folks became aware of how much we are not separated by our nations, culture and language, but by how much we are united by our humanity.  I remember in particular, the "shy" student who is a dancer reveling in how she connected with one of the Chinese students who has a passion for dancing as well, and how she really wished she could see him dance.

I know this is just one meal, and who knows what impact it will have.  I do know that transcending one's fear, stepping out of one's comfort zone, and having a wonderful experience can be the building block for doing more of this.  Perhaps one day, the dancers will share that dance.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Moving from "Crisis" to "Sustainability": Reflections from New Orleans 2013 Workcamp

"Mercy that doesn't move intentionally in the direction of development will end up doing more harm than good - to both giver and recipient." - Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

When Katrina hit New Orleans, there was an immediate disaster - flooded homes, unsanitary and inhuman
living conditions, death.  Once the waters started to recede, it became clear that the depths of the loss of life and property were greatly exacerbated by neglect of our environment and our fellow citizens.  This is the common narrative of our times: storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and disease draw our attention to the deeper injustices as the crisis preys on the more vulnerable among us.  Unfortunately, as we respond to the crisis, we tend to get entrenched in a crisis mode of thinking and acting, rather than doing the hard work of community building/rebuilding with a vision of sustainability.  The crisis response seems heroic and can be very gratifying, but if it is not in direct response to the crisis, it is often doing more harm than good.  So it is with New Orleans.

I just returned from taking Sidwell Friends School students to New Orleans during their annual spring break Workcamp.  The origins of this trip  trace directly to Katrina.  Most of the Workcamp activities in past years focused on rebuilding houses and cleaning up.  While this is important work, and it is important that we provide opportunities for people to engage in service in a way that they feel good, it is also important that distinctions be made between "crisis response" and sustainability, as well as between meaningful service and "feel-good" service.  So this year it was time to not just look more deeply but also engage more deeply at the issues and to challenge ourselves to be realistic about what we can do for one week each year. I wanted to challenge us to look at the fact that real community change has to come from within, so it is up to the people of New Orleans to make those changes just as it is up to the people of DC to change their community.  On the other hand, looking at things from the environmental angle and engaging in service there can help all of us address things where we are interconnected.

Our service projects included urban gardening at a charter school, helping exchange lightbulbs as part of Greenlight New Orleans' energy program, learning about the water threats of the Gulf and the Mississippi (which, through oil drilling, shipping, and snow melts connect to over half the country), and getting dirty helping restore some bayou spaces.  This offered a wide-range of activities that allowed for participants to see that there are many ways to serve.

Most importantly, however, as is so often the case with these week-long Workcamps, it is the fellowship that seems to really bring it all together.  Great questions were raised about what kind of difference we were making, why certain types of service seem more gratifying than others and how to do these services locally and why that matters.  In addition to service/justice-related conversations, there were also great conversations about race, segregation, equality - all the things that we
aspire for but find so elusive to practice in our daily lives.  These are the conversations that matter, and the establishment of deeper relations guarantees that these will be the foundation for even greater community change as we support each other in stepping out.

Of course, these trips have lots of laughs - many of which stem from
content not for public consumption given the lack of context.  But these laughs bring the positive energy to what can otherwise seem daunting work, establishing bonds of fellowship, friendship and care for each other that can carry us to being better stewards of each other and the world around us.