Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

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About Jay C Ritterson
If I say nothing, it might be that I have nothing to say.

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