In our first reflection, Dane, the site coordinator, passed around two stories, both representing different kinds of service. One talked about a man who was throwing washed up star fish into the ocean. There were millions of star fish along the beach, and he had no way of possibly throwing them all back. However, he continued to individually pick up star fish and fling them back to safety. The other story told of babies floating down a river. Most people jumped head first into the river to help save the babies from drowning. However, a duo starts to run up the river, and when prompted why, they respond that they are going to stop whoever keeps throwing babies into the water. While the two stories are fictions and service is rarely that straightforward, they both symbolize clashing ideals in the non-profit sector.
During that first reflection, I said I was more of a star fish thrower. I still firmly believe that, however, it is something that I have struggled with ever since I have come to Boston. Thinking back on the service I completed throughout high school, and into college, it was always starfish throwing. Small acts that I felt made a difference to individuals or small groups of people. Now, I think this stemmed from some branch of selfishness. I have always approached things the same way. Be it school, sports, or in this case service, I work hard in spurts so that I can quickly see results and move on to the next task. This worked for smaller goals such as college, grades, and whatever else captured my attention growing up. However, when I translated it to service, I realize now, this was more of a Band-Aid solution, that gave more to me than anyone else. I could spend a week of my summer fixing houses; come back and receive pats on the back because there was a tangible roof that I had built over someone’s head. However, that roof covered one family, in a county where millions suffered from homelessness, poverty and drug addiction.
I have always hated “why” questions, and enjoy focusing on the “how.” Since starting my DukeEngage journey, however, these questions are something I can no longer run from. During my first few weeks at the Family Independence Initiative in Boston, I tried to see how FII was throwing star fish. I tried to focus on what tangible differences FII was making, and how I could fit in. However, the moment I walked in, it was clear that FII was unlike any non-profit I had seen before. For starters, FII has guidelines when it comes to vocabulary. They don’t use the words “help, program, or service” in fact they are pretty much an entirely hands-off initiative. FII provides families with resources that accelerate their success, however, FII refuses to provide any direct assistance. The families must work entirely through their own initiative to achieve the goals they want. The results show FII has far wider success in breaking the cycle of poverty than any previous non-profit I had worked with.
I think the most difficult thing for me to wrap my head around, is that sometimes these goals clashed with what I thought they should be focusing on. One family was fine with their situation financially, despite being below the federal poverty line. The mother simply was lonely, and wanted to connect more with her community. Who am I to tell her what she should be focusing on? Throughout my childhood, as much as I hate to say it, my parents always knew what was best for me and our family, why would it be different for low-income families?
In our most recent reflection, we did a workshop on finding the root cause of global issues. For almost every single issue we studied, I came to the same root cause, and that is stereotypes. If you take a deep look at any issue, be it sexual assault, the achievement gap, or poverty, all of them stem from false notions that society has plastered on certain groups of people. And, to achieve the change many of us so desperately want to see in the world, it is not enough to build a roof over the heads of low income families. We must sit down and listen to their experiences, goals, and ideas for a solution.