What if changing the world is as simple as listening?

Thanks to Rachel Lewis for sharing her thoughts on our personal responsibility to think about who we are and what we can do for the world. And a special thanks to Elon’s Dr. Jon Dooley for inspiring us all to think more deeply about our call to do justice. 

None of us got where we are today on our own.

No matter how much ideas of exceptionalism and individuality may permeate our thoughts, we got where we are today as a result of our relationships with the people around us. Think about it – the only reason that we survive past birth is become someone chooses to take care of us, even if only in the most basic of ways. As we continue to grow and develop, there are family members, friends, teachers, and mentors who teach us the skills that we need to continue surviving. There are people we don’t always think about, like those who work in the stores that provide us with food, the people who cultivate that food, or the people who give us clean classrooms to learn in, and the community members who fight to get the resources that our communities need.

And in that last line, we find the reminder that we are a part of something beyond ourselves. We are not individuals ambling along, free of connections with the people around us. We are members of societies; we are citizens; we are community members, and our communities in so many ways define us.

So what do we do when our communities begin to fail?

It doesn’t take much. Ineffective local government. Ineffective state government. Ineffective national government. (Do you see where I’m going here?) But it isn’t just the fault of government. Failings in communities very often come from apathy within the community. If people aren’t forcing the government to do something, if people don’t even seem to care about the people within their community, why would the government bother spending time and money to make a change?

When we think about service, many of us think about mission trips. We think about work abroad. We think about social change – we think about changing the world.

But rarely when we think about service, do we think about the people in our hometowns. Rarely do we think about our own communities.

In order to truly care for a community, we need to know its ins and outs. We need to know its needs. It’s impossible to be a total outsider to an area and to somehow know exactly what it needs. To know the needs of something, or someone, you have to listen to them.

This becomes more and more difficult as we begin to leave our own communities. We move away and go to college and university and, as we continue moving up in the world, we look down on where we came from. We see low employment rates and a rise in the need for free healthcare and food stamps, and if we aren’t impacted by these things ourselves, we may fall into the trap of wondering what those people are doing wrong.

We become distant from what we came from, from the people who cared for us, from the community that provided us with the schools and resources to get to where we are today. We wield our macbooks and our high GPAs and our knowledge of the global world, and we act as if we have some sort of inherent knowledge that the people around us somehow lack, thus deeming us superior.

So maybe some of us step forward. Maybe some of us say, “Okay, this isn’t right. I’m going to help out.” But when we think of it, like this, as helping, we are creating these power dynamics with us at the top. We are hopping into a community with optimism and this idea that we have all of the answers, somehow, at 18 or 19 or 20 or 21, and that if only these people in these communities that we came from (or moved to) would listen to us, all of their problems would be solved.

Someone deeply involved in service, learning, and justice is Dr. Dooley, the Assistant Vice President for Student Life and the Dean of Campus Life at Elon University. This past weekend while giving a leadership address, he stated,

…if you think the answer to initiating change is more well-meaning college educated Americans, look no further than Washington DC – our nation’s capital is filled with college graduates from the best universities in the world.  How is that working out for us in terms of action?  Look at the college graduates we send around the globe to solve world crises – how is America doing on the world stage?

I think sometimes that we are told too often that we are the future of this country. We are told, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But we don’t think about what this looks like. We assume, again, that have this inherent goodness about us that gives us the ability to change the world without hard, painful, and sometimes miserable work. We get involved in helping, and we hear the word justice and we think that we’re doing it; we hear the word service and think, “Yes, I am doing service.”

But the thing about service is that it requires caring, and caring requires listening, and not just in the sense of listening to what is coming out of someone’s mouth, though that’s a start. Listening means hearing the entire story – it means thinking about where someone comes from, and how their identities and their environment shaped the life that they’ve lived. It means forcing yourself to get out of your own head and to recognize that not everyone has had the same resources that you’ve had, or the same level of care, that propels you to the top. Listening means hearing the sound of the glass ceilings and the walls that push some people so deep into the dirt that we hardly even see them as members of the community at all.

If we want to call what we’re doing justice, then our service must seek not just to change the world in some abstract, impossible to pin down sort of way; if we’re going to engage in justice, we’re going to need to think, really, really deeply, about who we are, and what we can provide to the world.

And here, in a final quote from Dr. Dooley, is your call to action:

So as you walk into your service site, do so with humility and respect.  Go there to understand more deeply. Go there to work on solutions to the problems the community faces, but do it alongside those you are serving. There is nothing worse than walking in blind to your own privilege and missing the point.

The world doesn’t need your service; the world needs justice – and your call to be engaged is not a call to simply do more service.  It is to do more justice. To work toward the full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs; a society where individuals are self-determining and interdependent.

What are the needs in our community and how do you work toward justice in the world?

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