October 4, 2009

A Good Act?

Today, while running with my friend, Anna, we began discussing our different volunteering experiences and the motivation behind our service. In this conversation, I admitted that sometimes I feel pretentious in performing these actions. It’s an ironic feeling when I know that what I am doing is culturally defined as good. What bothers me, perhaps, is the context of my actions. I am a Caucasian woman of privilege. My family is decidedly middle class but as an only child, I received all the attention and resources that my parents could give. I was raised wanting for nothing and told that I could take on the world with no limits. I had choices and oysters galore. That is fortune right there.

However, many of my volunteering experiences have involved mentoring to individuals of a different race and ethnicity who were not given the same advantageous view. To be quite frank, I am white and many of them have been black. And it makes me uncomfortable. I feel patronizing though that has been the farthest thing from my intent. I wish honestly that I could give some of my chances to those who have struggled. Those who weren’t given the opportunities they so richly deserve.

There is so much pain and history around race relations in this country, in this world, and I feel it when I am meeting with my mentee, who I am currently helping apply to college by editing her essay and advising on the application process. She’s such a smart, witty, talented girl who has so much potential but also has many challenges, chiefly that she comes from a large Ethiopian immigrant family who is still learning the cultural norms and understandings like how to help their daughter get the best education. Her parents love her and want the best for her but they are scared of trying new things and meeting new people -- scared of difference. The Ethiopian family unit is tightly knit and not about giving children the independence to make their own way in the world. My mentee has come a long way in trying to convince her parents to allow her to have opportunities that, while scary for them, will benefit her experience and enable her to achieve the dreams she chooses. Can you tell I admire this girl and wish her the very best? I do.

This little essay is not meant to stir up controversy -- I know how volatile talk of race can be. But I think it's worthwhile to think a bit on why you volunteer or maybe, why you choose not to volunteer. I only meant to reflect on the context of my actions and motivation. I volunteer because I want to give back what I have been given. I expect nothing in return. Well, I enter with the intention of expecting nothing except maybe the knowledge that my time has benefited another. And I have benefited in that way. Time with my mentee fills my life in the little empty places that often need it. As Burma's democracy leader and political prisoner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, once said, "If you're feeling helpless, help someone."

All in all, I think in the matter of volunteerism, less reflection on the context of the actions and more doing of the actions is a better practice. This world needs more action anyways. With that, I am off to proofread my mentee’s essay that has arrived recently in my inbox.

Quote from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi found at Brene Browne's Ordinary Courage.

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