Volunteering, community service, public service…different approaches to cultivating empathy and advancing impact through action. We’ve seen the effect of “thoughts and prayers” levied as a banal reflex to horrific and unnecessary acts. Faith without works is dead. Doing community service keeps reinforces bonds within our community and bolsters trust. The paradoxical upside of complex social problems means that we can all make at least a small corner of the world better by serving interests other than our own on occasion.
Wednesday morning I awoke to the thrilling sight of several women of color stepping into public service roles at all levels of government. I’m luck to know women in my life who have the aptitude and interest in running for office in the next couple of terms. I’ve even helped a couple of them run for minor roles on public commissions. Personally, I’m not in that same boat as I don’t have the polish necessary for more diplomatic responses to serving large swaths of conflicting interests. In other words, I have a penchant for being a bit too honest.
That said volunteering is an important part of my life. The activities have changed over time. I was a Girl Scout, completing annual service projects from ages 7 to 16 such as Habitat for Humanity. I volunteered as a hospital candy striper for two years while in high school As an active member of my church, I would gather food and clothing donations and also helped build a church. In college, I tutored middle school children in the sciences and math and also led fun learning activities for children living with their mothers in shelters. I recognize that the privileges I have don’t extend to everyone. Serving others is essential to making our world a better place.
While I lived in Brazil in 2010, I decided to seek out volunteering opportunities. A grad school professor connected me to a college of his working at another local university who connected me with a program serving women who were victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Once a week, I co-led workshops focused on activities that taught women how to make goods they could sell to help them achieve financial independence. We worked side by side making home decor items. With our hands busy, we had plenty of time to chat.
Their curiosity about my life surprised me at first. They wanted to know why I chose to come to Brazil given that I didn’t have family ties there. They asked about my family and about my education. They encouraged me to stay close to family. A couple of women had not seen their families in years and no longer lived near them. They were hoping to earn money so they could move family closer to Rio for better job opportunities. They laughed at my dating stories and told me to focus on school and work rather than focusing on men. It was like having a room full of aunties who both judged you with love but also imparted advice from their lived experience. This proximity to the best and worst of human nature has altered my definition of what constitutes justice.
I came into the program with preconceived notions about what it means to be a survivor of violence. Rather than being fearful, they were resilient. They laughed with each other over the inability to get the chocolate to melt properly to make truffles. They helped each other decorate the gift baskets. And most importantly, they supported each other without question or hesitation. I’m not condoning or extolling the virtues of trauma. Rather, I want to counteract a common misconception that many of us have about the aftermath of trauma.
The United States is riddled with mass shootings at an astonishingly rapid clip. And with every tragedy, the media seem to compete the softest rendering of the trauma that the shooter went through at some point in their life. But my experience volunteering with these women flies in the face of that correlation of trauma with mass violence. These women experienced the worst treatment at the hands of men. Rather than picking up weapons of war to destroy lives, they sought to serve other people: their children, their families, and even me.
Violence is a selfish act, one that destroys empathy in favor of advancing power. It grows in the fertile ground of a lack of trust. I am not naive enough to believe that we can achieve justice simply by having more people engage in community service. But I think we can create conditions hostile to violence that make restorative justice possible.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.