Domestic or International Service?

I have taken some time to think about the idea of volunteer service in another country. Being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, you may think, well, she’s going to say of course go serve in another country. But, I have also volunteered rather consistently, domestically, since 1997 and worked three years for an organization that mobilizes full-time AmeriCorps volunteers. Many AmeriCorps volunteers would ask me if I recommend the Peace Corps, and I used to share how my PC experience gave me a greater heart for domestic service because I felt I had less barriers to being effective. But now, almost four years later, I realize the series of questions that I would pose to get those interested in international service some perspective, applies to domestic service as well.

Usually, I would start with something broad (I’ll include the domestic adaptations in parenthesis): Why do you want to serve? What do you want to do?

  • Be immersed in a new culture (environment) and learn a new language (perspective)?
  • Meet people who are different from you?
  • Work hard, but not necessarily do the work you were expecting to do?

If those bullets sound good, then okay, cool, let’s get a bit deeper. What do you want to gain or learn? What do you want to give or provide?  What is it that you care to accomplish?

  • Gain a better understanding of international (local) politics and policy in regards to foreign aid (social services)
  • To be humbled by learning your perspective and expertise will more often than not be inefficient, ineffective, not applicable, or culturally inappropriate (uninformed) in the context of the country  (institution/system/community)
  • Earnestly learn about the culture (history of the institution/system/community) and language (values)
  • Build relationships with colleagues and community members because you recognize this is the most critical part of your service and work
  • Gain a better understanding of yourself and your small role in the bigger picture

If those sound good to you, great! Here’s the catch, I’d suggest you think carefully about serving if you are dead-set on accomplishing any of the following: 

  • Your skills being utilized immediately
  • Your skills being utilized often and to full capacity
  • Building capacity at more than the individual level

Being a foreigner, an outsider (a guest), you MUST spend a great deal of time learning about the culture, the context of the work you hope you engage in, and most importantly build your credibility with the locals who have been living and working in the current conditions that you want to come and support. I really do think it takes at least a year to get to the point where you might be able to start some systematic and strategic work (maybe less if you are domestic). You can probably be helpful, but you won’t be most helpful until you have learned about and from the community. If you think that you need to fix or save, I’d like to share with you that from my experience and observations of others, that mentality doesn’t work for anyone- foreign or domestic. You may also want to consider what it will take for your work to be sustainable.  Is their a clear end date and outcome or is it ongoing that will require continued human and financial capital? Will someone need to take over the responsibilities or tasks you will be performing when you leave? Who’s idea is it- yours or the community you are supporting? Who’s funding you and how does that influence your effectiveness?

So, in the end- international or domestic, I believe that good work is good work, whatever it is, wherever you decide to do it, however you decide to do it. Don’t wait for the perfect org or the perfect fit for you, be the perfect fit for the need that you can support. Go do something good. Learn and do that something good better than when you started. Your one day service project matters. Your short-term contribution matters. Your daily decisions matter. How you live your life matters.


18 years before I came to know gratitude

If prompted to think of all the things we must teach a child, gratitude probably wouldn’t top your list.  Though, now mentioned, you may agree to it’s importance and that you would want all people to have this quality.  So how do we teach gratitude? If I were to use my experience, I would say that it happens through sharing experiences with others, thoughtfully reflecting on the experience, and broadening your understanding through learning about others’ perspectives.

One such pivotal experience in my life that has taught me about gratitude happened when I went to college; I started volunteering at a unique charter school that was designed in an attempt to improve the diversity of college student populations to be more representative of the diversity of the actual population.  The students at this charter school were low-income, of minority backgrounds, the first in their families to possibly attend college, and either the student or parent (preferably both) must be committed to ensuring the student pursued college.  It was at this school that I learned that I was fortunate in my educational upbringing. Unlike many of the students I worked with, I never worried about college being a financial strain for my family- not because of tuition fees, but because I wouldn’t be able to contribute an income to my family.  I never thought about whether my school was or was not preparing me to be competitive enough to get into college.  I never worried about my friends giving me a hard time for going to a college prep school after returning home from an hour commute each day.  I also never wrestled with the pain of drugs, alcohol or gang activity in my life.

I grew up in a small suburb of Los Angeles County, where going to college was the next step after high school.  In elementary school I was tested for the Gifted and Talented Education program several times at the request of my teachers, I never passed, but was always placed with the teachers who had the gifted students. I didn’t make the connection that not all students in the eighth grade were taking algebra, even though not all eighth graders went to school for zero period to take the only algebra class offered before everyone else started school.  My high school advisor, who set my class schedule, argued with me when I said I wanted to take regular Spanish IV with the ‘easy’ teacher, and tried to convince me to take advanced placement Spanish IV.

My experience as a volunteer tutor and mentor for middle schools students at this unique charter school lasted for three years, however it only took a few short months for the students to begin to confide in me.  It was their honesty that brought me to the sobering realizations of my schooling that I shared above and allowed me to be grateful and appreciative of the educators who believed in me.  At the time, I was unable to recognize my life as full of opportunities because they were normal to me; I had no idea how life differed for others. That experience sparked my curiosity about education and it led me to pursue a teaching credential and a masters in education, teaching under-served populations, training Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia, and now, working alongside AmeriCorps Members who tutor and mentor students in Los Angeles Unified School District with City Year.

I find it crucial for our youth to have experiences that will broaden their perspective, because it was when I learned about others and from others that I came to a place of gratitude and was able to come to know my passion for educational equity. We need to be intentional about providing youth with valuable experiences.  We can’t expect kids to be “good” let alone great without teaching what that means and then giving those kids appropriate opportunities to practice being a good person.  Most of us need support in this growing process, and then hopefully we get good without support, and even when no one is watching.

So, what might that look like?  A new non-profit called Big Citizen HUB has designed deliberate programming that brings young people together to learn about social issues, to take action in response to the social issue through service, and all the while reflecting to add an additional layer of learning.  What is unique about Big Citizen HUB is that they bring together diverse teams of youth to be curious, adventurous, reflective- to be ‘big citizens’ by actively participating in their community to build greater democracy.   The youth who will participate in this program will serve 100 hours and by the end of the program will do their own research and design their own service project to implement.  Programs such as these are amazing and inspiring, they give hope and encouragement because they are designed to strengthen character (if you are interested in the research on the relationship of character and success check out the character lab founded by Angela Duckworth).  These programs need to be everyday, commonplace.  That is my hope.

If you would ever buy me a latte in the future, I am going to ask that you spend that $5 on donating to Big Citizen HUB because I believe in this organization and its leadership.  Just pretend we met up, I mean we still can, and I’ll just drink water or buy my own drink, better yet, I’ll buy you a drink, so that you can click this link and give a bit to our future leaders in a city whose bank of opportunities is heavily weighted on factors that have nothing to do with them.  A child doesn’t ask to be born, or have a choice in where they grow up, or choose the school that they attend.  And when did those choice-less factors become strong determinants of a child’s opportunity?

Let’s be good to each other because we can.  Let’s support those that are courageous enough to invest in our youth.

< 2 min and I begin to cry

Two days ago was the day that 246 new AmeriCorps Members started their service with City Year as mentors, tutors and role models for low-performing LAUSD schools.  They just began their two weeks of full time training after that they will do three weeks of half day  in classrooms with students and the other half in training. Then, they will be in schools full time.

On day one, our executive director shared a bit of her story and her heart for service.  We shared about the history of service in America- Civilian Conservation Corps, Peace Corps, City Year and how City Year was the inspiration for Bill Clinton to begin AmeriCorps.  The presenters asked that I share for 2 minutes on my PC experience and I said yes.  This is what I said:

I was attracted to serving in Peace Corps because a country so thirsty to improve to humble themselves to ask for foreign aid was a request that I could not refuse.  From that experience I learned there are good and bad people everywhere, rich people even in poor countries and corruption exists everywhere as well. 

Even though I lived with the community I served in Ethiopia for 2 years, I wasn’t able to accomplish much because of things like being female, not looking like the standard American, surely not being able to speak English fluently because I don’t look standard American, looking much younger than my age…

And so it was in Ethiopia that I remembered that the American Dream is real. Although America is not equitable just yet, there is opportunity.  You may have to work longer and harder than you thought you would need to and maybe even longer and harder than someone that doesn’t look like you- still, it is possible.  It is for this reason that I am proud to be an American.

Strangers, when learning I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, will often say that I am so noble or amazing to rough it in a third world country.  I nod and smile while silently disagreeing because that beautiful idea that attracted me to Peace Corps stayed an idea for me. All of you (City Year Corps Members) are much more impressive [this is where I started to cry, I paused, then continued to speak while crying] because I already know with confidence that what you will do in 10 months will surely surpass what I was able to do in two years. So it is for this reason that I am proud to serve my country, here, with you all.  

I almost made it to the end of my two minutes without crying.  Maybe the emotions have come easily because the last 4ish months I have lived and breathed work- preparing, creating and revising training content, getting others to create and revise content, planning logistics for preparing 40 staff members (half being new hires because of our expansion) and 42 senior corps members on how to facilitate trainings to our new corps in a three week window.  There are 28 unique content sessions that are being delivered in 10 rooms at the same time for 8 days.

The prep has been worth it. It’s been amazing.  We talk about active citizenship, what falls under social justice, how work in education is social justice, how idealism can be pragmatic and transformative, and learning about how the community members in Watts, MacArthur Park, and others we serve in have been doing amazing work to build up their neighborhoods.

I keep falling in love with these idealistic young adults who are about to work 10-12 hours a day for 10 months straight on a $1000 monthly stipend.  They make me so happy and so proud to do what I do.  It is a pleasure and a privilege.

two hundred eighty-eight

This is the reason for my long absence.  273 AmeriCorps Volunteers completed their 10 months of full-time service three weeks ago with City Year Los Angeles.  288 fresh idealists will arrive in a month and therefore the last two months of my life has be dedicated to preparation in the form of training content design and revision, logistics, and carrolling busy people to get the answers I need to keep moving forward.  I am currently in the process of orchestrating how to ensure 30 of our staff members are prepared to facilitate daily for two weeks.

I am at the point where I work until I decide to get into bed, it is midnight and feel that it should be eight so that I could have four more hours before it be midnight.  I need to be on a planet that revolves on it’s axis 10 times slower.  It’s my new wish, sorry world peace move on over, expediency has taken priority.

The birthplace of all my content design has been from the idea of active citizenship to build greater democracy- the premise of City Year.  Truman, upon leaving his presidency said, “I’m not leaving the highest office in the land.  I am assuming the highest office, that of a citizen.”  Which of course, resonates with me. I believe the individual is most powerful in their daily decisions.  So, I get to support idealist young adults who make the remarkable decision to give 10 months of their lives to serve in under resourced schools and I help them make connections.  Connections of social justice to education, of daily work over time to impact, and to their recollections of influential people in their lives that they didn’t know were influential at the time to who they are now to the students they work with.  I help them remember to take a step back when a kid is manipulating them or hurting their feelings to the see the kid’s behavior as a result of their experience with people not them specifically- trust me my friend, the kid does not know you well enough to hate you in that way, that is what the kid has learned to do to survive.

So, I take idealistic people with a heart of service and ask them to be amazing for 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 10 months.  It is only fair that I work long hours for them for a few months.  I did just eat a bagel with pizza sauce, which tells you I am tired or lazy or hate grocery shopping- really it’s all three.

“Get Gritty”

Recently I have been learning about positive psychology.  Defined by UPenn as, “The scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” It has been a keystone to the work I have been doing with City Year, Los Angeles.  We think about the work of Carol Dweck who is a leading researcher in growth mindset- the belief that one’s effort can lead to improvement (watch this 3:25min video of how this plays out with children), Angela Duckworth who has been looking at how character like grit, optimism, self control, and gratitude are more predictive of personal and professional success than IQ, socio-economic status, race, talent and to my horror- even good looks (watch this 6 min  Ted Talk video). Now that your world has been turned on it’s head, well, be encouraged.

Just when we were all about to surrender to being cut throat and looking out only for ourselves, we have figured out that being a better human increases our likelihood of success.  This is an essential mindset to internalize when working within a system that has been behind the curve in serving the needs of the communities I have worked with for 12 years.  I recently looked at a list of LA schools that have the highest rate of arrests and incarcerations and a good majority are schools that City Year partners with.  I am perplexed that a physical location can be a predictor of anything- a child can’t choose where they are raised.

So, I know some of you may have come from a rough background and didn’t have it so easy- that sucks.  Does it need to suck for everyone for the rest of time?  Is this life hazing we mandate/encourage/allow/turn a blind eye to need to continue? I know you may have made it.  I am telling you it wasn’t right that you had to go through all you did, and it still isn’t right.  I’m not asking anyone to be nice, by all means I’m not nice, but I will never go out of my way to be mean.  If you go out of your way to be mean, we can’t be friends.  If you are friends with people who go out of their way to be mean, we can’t be friends.  I mean, we may not even be friends right now, yet I’m asking you to consider how your everyday decisions cause ripples whether you want to recognize it or not.  What would you like your ripples to produce?

Feeling small? Well, no need.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation…. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage… [and]… belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

— Robert F. Kennedy Day of Affirmation Address University of Capetown · Capetown, South Africa · June 6, 1966

The greatest lie that the masses have believed is that one person is not enough, that one person’s act doesn’t matter.  That is very untrue.  You matter.  Others matter.  I am positive.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only the that ever has.” 

Margaret Mead

I am because we are, we are because I am.

My high school had a pretty complicated student government program.  There were the normal class officers for each grade level, but we had a governing body for the entire school that we called United Student Body.  There was an executive board, pres, vice, speaker of the house, interorganization chair, finance, and secretary, that was elected by the entire student body.  These then elected officials would then appoint commissioners- academics, assemblies and rallies, publicity, student store, and so forth.

The point, other than the fact that I grew up in a school system that expected us to succeed, is that this saying, “I am because we are, we are because I am,” was the motto that the president of my first year in USB decided for our group.  Now, I never had taken the time to understand, I just simply knew I didn’t understand (granted I was a freshman at the time).  I thought it was weird and I just let it go.

Now, 15 years later, I get it.  It’s ubuntu, a word from the Zulu language meaning “I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours.”  This term, first introduced to me a few years ago because it’s the name of Linux’s rad open source software, then in a TED talk during my Peace Corps service, and now as one of the values in which the organization I work for is founded upon.

I work in education because others matter.  The greatest privilege I have had has been the high expectations my teachers and the adults around me have had for me while I was growing up.  I did not realize it at the time and I am sad to know now, that it was and is a privilege.  Not everyone has people believing in them, in their ability and their worth.  When did this become something to give and refuse?  Did you know that research has shown belief in self and having others believe in you is a more likely predictor of success than IQ or aptitude?

I believe in possibility.  I hope to one day believe in people.  I do good because I can, not because it is easy, because it is right, but really because I can.

Working the last 6 months in City Year has been a pleasure.  Just read the some of the values by which we operate:

Service to a cause greater than self

Students first, collaboration always

Belief in the power of young people

Social justice for all

I mean, for an idealistic cynic like me, these ideas are irresistible.  The best part, we work hard to embody them. We think about how to stretch ourselves, we stand in circles and talk things out, we work long hours, we take ownership for our mistakes.  I went to work today at 7:30am to support the training of the 288 new Americorps Members who will be serving in LAUSD, went to go to the office to do some more work and left at 8:30pm- not tired.

I came home, made shiro and silsi for the fresh injera the parking attendant at my parking garage brought for me because his wife just made it today and they know the first day of injera is my favorite way to eat Ethiopian food. Finally, I thought, well, I haven’t blogged in a while and I want to share how my work connects my heart to others. How there are good people.  How serving others can be a norm- 2700 young adults will serve across the nation in high need schools this year through my organization alone.  We can be good to one another.

I am because we are, we are because I am.