Fighting Poverty with Passion
Stepping off the bus and entering the world of Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) Atlanta, the first thing that struck me was the diversity. While only in my late 20s, I expected to feel like an old lady among vibrant recent college graduates with sunshine in their eyes. My expectations were not met in the least. The people that made up PSO Atlanta this week shattered my assumptions, because they spanned all ages, races, experiences and worldviews. My colleagues shared at least one thing: an incredible passion for change; it was lovely.
While I am waiting excitedly for my first day at my site, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, I’ve already gained a lot this week. At PSO, my facilitator helped create a conversation that reinforced my existing views on the issues of poverty in America while still introducing new tools and ideas. My favorite new terms from this week were “Appreciative Inquiry” and “Asset-Based Community Development” (ABCD), because they take the focus off of what the volunteer might bring to the table and place it on what the community already has to offer. These terms encapsulate missing ingredients in many nonprofit efforts that almost made me shy away from considering myself a part of the nonprofit community. I did not want to be someone who elevated herself while looking down on the community I was serving.
At 19 years old, I certainly found myself qualified to save the world. A little life experience quickly helped me realize that, however well intentioned, this way of thinking is very presumptuous—even disrespectful. Still, what keeps me from falling back into that frame of mind? For those who dedicate their lives to serving others, there is a real danger of taking on the role of “savior.” Appreciative Inquiry and ABCD remind us that it’s not our job to save people; we’re not even responsible for changing their lives! Maybe at times, I may be lucky enough to awaken a power that drives a person to change his or her own life, but I am in no place to give that to anyone; they already own it.
In the end, this what I gather: My role in eliminating poverty has nothing to do with me. It’s not my place to say to any population: I’m going to tell you what’s best for you; I’m going to tell you what you need. I’ve never wanted to be that person and now I realize that one way I can avoid this pitfall is to put these theories into action. The conversation should always be: YOU tell me what’s best for you. YOU tell me what you need. As an AmeriCorp VISTA service member, I want to help create options and resources for a population in need of equal standing. It’s easy to say, but harder to practice. As I go through my service and my nonprofit career, I hope to always remember that everyone deserves open doors, but it is not my job to tell anyone which doors they should walk through.
I look forward to my service with the Cowen Institute and the amazing experiences to come. Until then, please check out their latest publication, The State of Public Education in New Orleans: 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina.