Reflecting on Service

I was very honored to receive Northeastern’s Outstanding Graduate Student Award in the area of community service. As part of that award, I was asked to write a statement of my personal philosophy regarding service. To be honest, I found the prompt challenging as I don’t really consider most of my efforts “service” in the traditional sense — I’d be more inclined towards Harry Boyte’s term of public work — nevertheless, here is what I wrote:

This world is what we make it. Our societies, our monuments, our every day encounters – these are the product of human energy and interaction. In a very real sense, we build this world; we shape it in ways both great and terrible. As individuals, we are limited and finite, but together our collective capacity spans the long arc of human civilization. With this awesome power weighing upon our collective shoulders, we are left with a seeming simple but important question:

What should we do?

The brevity of this question belies its depth; each word has an important role to play:

  • What: What are the specific actions to be taken?
  • Should: What are the right actions and what are the right criteria for determining those actions?
  • We: Literally you and I. The humans writing and reading this letter. We each have a role to play in shaping the world around us. Our voices, perspectives, and actions matter. And of course:
  • Do: It is not enough to determine the appropriate actions, we must actually take them.

I like this question because it gives agency to both individuals and the communities to which they belong. As members of a society we should neither act with blind individualism – doing whatever we want whenever we want it – nor should we completely withdraw from public life, abdicating our responsibility to add our unique ideas and perspectives to the collective challenge of tackling complicated problems.

We each have a responsibility to share our voices; to roll up our sleeves and engage in the work; but perhaps even more importantly – we have a responsibility to ensure that the voices of those around us are heard; to build spaces where everyone can participate.

This duality is important because as individuals we play different roles in different contexts. As a first-generation-to-college woman in a STEM discipline, I’ve spent much of my life being told that my voice didn’t matter, that Ididn’t matter. Yet, as a highly educated white person, I still benefit from a lot of power and privilege. All of those identities are integral to who I am, and they each come into play in different settings – sometimes I need to be loud and vocal, and sometimes I’d do better to let others speak. At the end of the day, it isn’t about me – it’s about the strength of our collective endeavors.

This essay is supposed present my personal philosophy of service. As you may have gathered by now, I have a hard time with that prompt. To me, the word “service” invokes images of parachuting in for short-term efforts – ideally under the auspices of someone from the community who actually knows what’s needed. There is nothing wrong with that type of service; it’s important work if done well. But I prefer Harry Boyte’s term “public work.” We are each members of many, overlapping communities and our collective work is needed to build and maintain those communities. It is “service” insofar as it is service to the collective good, but it is work– it is the time, energy, and thought that goes into co-creating our shared world.

My personally philosophy, then is to perpetually ask, answer, and act on the question of “what should we do?” I put my energy towards building relationships of mutual trust, I put my time towards the collective work we agree must be done, and I put my financial resources towards causes I don’t personally have the expertise to support. I do my best to be a good citizen of my many communities – to listen, learn from, and support others while they listen, learn from, and support me. I try to build spaces where everyone knows they are welcome, where conflict doesn’t fester, and everyone accepts each other’s good intentions. To engage to the best of my ability in the unglamorous, every day tasks of associated life.

John Dewey writes that we must all “learn to be human” – that we must each develop “an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values.” I am continually learning to be human.  I just want to get good things do

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