Joy for Service

This time last year, I had no idea what made me feel alive, I wasn’t sure where I was meant to be, and I had no clue what a fiery passion in my heart could ever feel like. I was a freshly 19 year old college freshman who had literally just bombed my first semester (My GPA was a 1.9), I was on academic probation, I was lost and confused and after I realized I wasn’t smart enough or dedicated enough to be a doctor, I didn’t know what I was smart enough or dedicated enough to be. This time last year, I came in contact with a group at OSU called Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection (BCEC), and through BCEC I began volunteering at a number of site with an abundance of incredible, passionate people. The first site I ever volunteered at was a Juvenile Correctional Facility and looking back, it has completely changed and shaped my entire life. One Saturday, as I was there hanging out and having discussion with the youth that I have grown to absolutely love and care for, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with emotion. I was filled with such a joy seeing them laugh, relax, interact and open up, I was filled with deep sadness at the lives they were thrown into, the lack of options most of these young men had growing up, I was filled with a desire to affect their lives and to help them, I was filled with confusion and bitterness at the world and the cold people who have turned their backs on this population of people, I was filled with love for these boys, a kind of love that has deeply changed me. In this juvie, I found my passion. This time last year I walked through the doors into a room of youth and volunteers having no expectations, no understanding of what my life could become because of this extraordinary group of people. Today, my heart is different because of the kids that a lot of people on my Facebook feed are quick to blame for every single one the problems in our country. Onlookers want to shame the “gang bangers”, the kids out in the streets, but no one stops to think of the bigger issues at hand. Here are kids with no family, no love, no opportunity, no education, no options, and no help. They have no one to encourage them and tell them they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. Here is a population of young people who are written off as statistics, they are counted out, and they are left in the cold while the rest of the world forgets them because society is too busy with their own lives to love the lost ones. I have changed, in mind, spirit and heart, and I have chosen to dedicate my life to serving the population of people who had no one teach them any better than to be whom they are. My heart aches for the sadness, the poverty and the lack of educational opportunities in our communities. I have found purpose and happiness in working to change lives. BCEC has given me some incredible opportunities outside of just volunteering in the juvie. I have been all over the city, working with every age and population, being led by the greatest people I know. I wanted to say thank you to the people and the organization that changed my life. In the last year, I have been taught what passion not only looks like, but how it feels. I am feeling beyond blessed to have this heart and this joy for service and I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life. I encourage each of you to go out, serve your community, volunteer, reach out, change lives and see just how much your life changes too.

Learning to Listen

We recently had a meeting for work that was all about how to listen effectively. At the time I didn’t understand the importance, but while working with the middle school girls in the community, I have realized that not only do the girls struggle with listening when someone is speaking, but so do I. All my life I thought I was a great listener and I also thought I gave the best advice! I soon realized that when I’m listening I don’t actually understand what is being said. When someone is having a conversation with me I may hear one word that sends my mind to focus on other topics that may relate to what is being said.  While working with the girls, I have recognized that many of them struggle with this as well. When we ask the girls a question it is difficult for them to understand what we are asking and many times they go off on a rant that is not relevant to the question that was asked. They may associate one word that we say with a scenario or story and that is how they answer. It is then hard to redirect the conversation because from there, other girls find stories that are similar to the first and they all want to share. Many times the girls are so excited about their own answers and making sure their hand is seen that they don’t even listen to the other girl’s views on the topic. I am the same way! So how do you listen not just to formulate a good response but, to understand what is being said? Many times when people come to us with their problems we tend to reply with our own personal stories that may relate to their situation in some way, but is that really what they wanted to hear? Probably not.

There is a time to speak and a time to listen. When you work on listening more than speaking you can find out so much about a person. But how do you contribute to the conversation if all your doing is listening? By asking good questions of course! When we make our girls think about their answers it opens their minds to understand what they are saying at a more complex level. When the girls do go off on rants that are far off topic we can steer them back by asking the other girls questions like how does her story relate to leadership? This helps to get the girls thinking rather that us just giving them the answer ourselves. It has been a difficult concept to grasp, and if it is hard for me to grasp it at the age of nineteen how can I expect these young girls to catch on? Continuing to ask them questions about why they think listening is important and asking them how they think they can become better listeners is a great place to start. Facilitating listening lessons where the girls present topics and then the other girls ask them questions about their presentations is a great way to start. Teaching the girls at a young age how to listen will be extremely beneficial in their classes and within the relationships that they build moving forward in life.

White Privilege Not Pure Imagination

As a recruiter for the Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection (BCEC), I am always looking for new volunteers to facilitate our programming. As an agency, I find it especially important (and difficult) to recruit white students. I focus especially on white students because it is important to have white volunteers so they can share their experiences with marginalized groups with their white peers who may otherwise assume characteristics of under-served populations from descriptions they hear in the media or elsewhere.

 I find myself evaluating white people in my everyday interactions, deciding if they would make a good fit with the department, and many times extending an invitation for them to apply. Myself being a European-American, or “White,” I meet my share of bigoted and racist individuals, whom are usually expecting a pale, sympathetic ear. Like the scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), I take on Gene Wilder’s Wonka to their Veruca Salt. With the blare of a racist comment in my ears, the arrow of my evaluation flips to the words “BAD EGG” and I continue searching. Being that our department works with several societally marginalized populations, it would be unproductive to have an oppressive person tasked with empowerment.

However, not all Buckeyes are bad eggs. In fact, I meet several white students who posses a sort of ‘Golden Ticket’––that ticket being an ability to understand racist constructs and sometimes even identity their White Privilege, a concept believed to be purely imaginative by some. Like an overzealous Augustus Gloop, a racist individual will lap up the waters of White Privilege until they eventually fall in, enamored with their own reflection, and thus no longer be able to comprehend the forces they have succumbed to because they’re swimming in it. But when I meet a special individual, one with two feet firmly planted on solid ground, my internal evaluation lights up in celebration. Sometimes it seems these individuals are as random and hard to find as a golden ticket in a candy wrapper, but nevertheless they exist.

I have had both of these experiences several times. Unfortunately, even the most enlightened conversation does not predict if a student will choose to apply. For example, I have had a few fantastic interactions with white fraternity brothers who can deconstruct racism, yet ultimately explain that can not find time in their schedules for any of our over 50 programs a week––or simply ignore my requests to apply altogether.

Why? I sometimes ask myself. How can someone clearly understand the need for social change and then refuse to join the department facilitating it? The answer is simple: White Privilege. Whether they join or not, their lives will be unaffected. Racism will continue to benefit them and others white people (myself included). Keeping with our Wonka theme, to some, a white man empowering marginalized races seems as illogical as Wonka giving up his recipes to help rival candymakers. Why help them when one could be helping yourself?

In the final scene of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wonka forbids Charlie from claiming his prize despite making it to the end of the contest. Charlie, secretly having stolen Wonka’s prized ‘Everlasting Gobstopper’ knows he could easily sell the one-of-a-kind candy and make a fortune. Instead, Charlie does the seemingly illogical and returns the Gobstopper to Wonka and begins walking out the door completely empty-handed. He made the decision to give up what was not rightfully his and return to his squalor of a home because that was the fair and just thing to do on his part. To his surprise, Wonka, in a barely audible fashion, mumbles, “so shines a good deed in a weary world,” and begins exclaiming that Charlie has––in fact––won the competition. The chocolate factory is his and all is well in fantasyland.

Many white students I speak to hold on to their Everlasting Gobstopper, or White Privilege. It was not earned by them, but stolen by centuries of racism and oppression. White students know if times get tough or things do not go their way, they at least have their Gobstopper. However, when white people hold onto their racist privilege, their Gobstoppers, and refuse to help the people they draw their privilege from––that is the true failure.

I look for the people willing to give up their Everlasting Gobstoppers; those willing to renounce their privilege and empower the powerless.

As white Americans, we must consciously choose to give up our undue privileges. If we fail to do so, racism will be as everlasting as Wonka’s famous candy.