Fighting Poverty with Passion
The brand new season brought in some new changes for APEX Youth Center, and reader, you will not believe the roller coaster we have been through. From the highs to the lows, APEX has been through a lot within the past month. Six break-ins, two long-term dismissals from the center, and one benefit concert in the works…a sense of community has never been more crucial to the center. Although I announce this truth, I worry more about the sense of community among my peers and my fellow New Orleanians. Easing my troubled thoughts is as simple as stating two basic sentences:
Please do not tell me that my work is so difficult – so taxing – that you could not do it.
Please do not tell me that you admire me for the work I am doing because you could not perform it yourself.
These two statements have been the master culprit of a month’s worth of thought and reflection. I reflected upon my actions, my role, and my civic duty. I reflected upon the words as they leave a fellow Tulane alum’s mouth or the mouth of a one-time volunteer at APEX Youth Center. With so many reflections, I began to lose my own train of thought.
The statements above summarized into one sentence are as follows:
Your work is so important, but I am unable to do it because I lack the will, interest, or dedication.
Does something seem off about such a statement to you, reader? I view a statement such as this from two different perspectives: from a “pedestal outlook” and from the “ground level outlook.”
The Pedestal Outlook
Imagine a quick example: A kind soul walks into APEX Youth Center to volunteer, and things begin to get out of hand. Some kid began running around the center and hits another kid. Things escalate and the volunteer does not know what to do. As a supervisor, I jump into the situation using knowledge about each of the kids’ personalities and character as my tool. After reluctance and bouts of disrespectful attitudes, the children calm down and leave each other alone… for five minutes. Once that small period of time is finished, the children go back to their playful yet very physical tendencies and the volunteer is overwhelmed.
When I take care of the situation for the second time, the volunteer begins to provide thanks through verbal commendation and statements such as: “I admire you so much for what you do. I couldn’t do that. How do you do it?”
I can do it because I’ve dedicated the time. I made this Center my priority. While it may not be within the means or the interest for someone to dedicate as much as I do to APEX’s work, it is not out of one’s reach to do similar work. Even if the work is executed differently, it is important. Anyone can do it, too, and there are going to be a lot of children in Central City and the rest of New Orleans that will be lacking the mentors and role models if one does not understand that time is something that could make a difference if one realizes his/her potential to be a role model for youth. I constantly remind my APEX members of their potential; should I begin to remind my volunteers or my fellow New Orleanian of their potentials?
Sometimes a similar commendation is made after I provide a quick thirty second pitch on APEX. Is a quick elevator speech enough for you to indirectly belittle me, backwardly congratulate me on a job well done? But it is not enough to donate your time or your resources? Here I stand, on top of the pedestal that others have made for me, only to be separated from my resources below.
Ground Level Outlook
Sometimes the aforementioned statements are said with genuine and honest intentions. The statements are made to be taken in their raw form. When someone informs me that they “truly do admire what I do,” I know there is a kind intention to making such a remark. These remarks, however, are not immune to reproach. Sometimes the wording of the statement makes for an opposite of the pedestal outlook resulting in the ground level outlook.
People who make such commentary begin to look at my job in the non-profit sector as a sacrifice – a sacrifice that they did not want to make. When I first thought of this, I discussed it with other VISTAs, and a similar feeling lingered between us: there is something backhanded about someone admiring what you do and following it with a statement such as “I couldn’t do that.” The concept of giving back, taking a job in non-profit work, or volunteering has turned into something of a sacrifice rather than a necessity or an admirable profession. Seeing as my choice in work appears to be less admirable than any other, I find myself looking up from the ground below as my work is supposedly more commendable yet its foundation is being undercut with such remarks.
Even with these reflections, I want more people to commit to service. People do not need to undertake jobs in the non-profit world. Non-profits do not have it easy. VISTA has shown me that fact. However true as it may be, attitudes that sound defeatist and condescending – regardless of intention – are not going to help the non-profit you “admire so much” get anywhere. It’s time for a change in perspective. It is time for more conversations that end in: “Yes, I can do it, too.”