Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Different Type of Volunteer: Meet My Neighorhood Council Hero John

John is my hero. You don’t know John, most likely never really will. That’s not his real name by the way but in a lawsuit happy country, you never can be too safe. You see, to know John like I now know John, you have to sit through a three hour neighborhood council meeting in Westchester. A meeting full of Robert’s Rule of Order, various public comments that peak my curiosity but baffle my mind, and sometimes painstakingly boring presentations by certain speakers who make it obvious within the first 30 seconds they did not prepare for their moment of shinning glory in front of this auspicious crowd.

Back to John, he’s my hero, in a neighborhood council, I’m glad you’re doing this because I don’t think I’d ever care to sort of way. John has fought tirelessly against the expansion of LAX and had a fairly successful track record. Personal feelings you may have aside, expansion of LAX would be bad for a community right next to LAX, especially as Orange County and Long Beach refuse to accommodate their people thus exasperating the crisis in LA. And so John fights. And he fights against power lines with high unsafe levels of electricity running down residential streets they shouldn’t run down. And he does it with energy uncommon a man his age, and with a twinkle in his eye I am certain none of us could maintain after years of these battles for his neighborhood.

And so John has me thinking. I admire him greatly and yet if we sat down and spoke about politics, we would most certainly disagree, and disagree like water to hot oil. We probably wouldn’t see eye to eye on much, most likely on a local and national scale. But in the spirit of Dr. King, I have been thinking a lot about service and volunteerism. For a lefty like me, it’s easy to look at Americorps and the Peace Corps, and religious projects like the Working Boys Center or Jesuit Volunteers- groups where people literally give of themselves in the name of improving some aspect of society failing the poor and oppressed. As a nation, we are able to recognize the value of service in our men and women deployed overseas, regardless of whatever our feeling is about the conflict that has them stationed there.

But I wonder when we as a nation might wake up and do a better job of recognizing folks like John. People who spend hours a month at meetings that bring new meaning to the adage “more boring than watching paint peel” or people who comb through every dreary public announcement by agencies big and small and then cause a ruckus in the name of true public debate.

John fights a good fight for the neighborhood of Westchester. Whether you agree with him or not to me is beside the point. He does it for free, he does it out of convictions he holds dear, and he does it with a smile and with a dignity that is lost upon many of us. And so a big thanks to John, for the hours he spends on projects to improve my community, and for helping me to consider with a more wide angle lens the spirit that is service and volunteerism in America today.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dueling Realities

Reality is complex to define. While in South America, I was often subjected to conversations with friends back home who knew nothing of my reality and thus dismissed my volunteering as a cheeky avoidance of reality- an extended spring break of sorts if you will. What I have seen in my time back in the United States is at once simple and complex: the world is limitless with definitions of reality, each one different, real, and wholly unique from the other, and each equally important to understand.

And so I live the reality of a man who has not just seen developing world poverty but lived amongst it and attempted in a rather amateur way to repair it or at least heal some of the wounds that develop as a result of it. And now I am a mid 20 something, surrounded by a haunting reality of a world I can’t and don’t want to forget. And yet I am increasingly entrenched in a world where like it or not your bank statement and your 401K mean something- not so much in terms of competition or prestige but in the simple matter of being able to provide for yourself. Suddenly, the question “what do you want to do with your life?” weighs heavy upon my shoulders.

Living in debt sucks. I know this first hand because it is perhaps the greatest characteristic of my time back in the United States. Working for little pay, I have found myself with a monthly credit card statement that can’t always be paid off on time. And my digs have ranged from a former convent in South LA where my room was the size of a closet to an apartment in a freshman dorm at my alma mater. In that capacity I try, sometimes with limited success, to expose freshman to the challenge and opportunity that is discovering the poverty that lurks in our midst and what we all can and should be doing to respond to it. Life giving as this role is for me, I am faced with the realization that one can only be a coupon whore and live gratis in church attics and dorms for so long.

And all this has me thinking, or more accurately said, worrying, about what my future contains. This I know, I am happiest when directing my energy towards making the world a better place. To take it a step further, I imagine I would be in my element working for a nonprofit focused on combating crisis of health and sanitation in the developing world. But at what cost? I attended a conference of nonprofit leaders in LA last year where the keynote speaker lamented about one of the greatest problems in the nonprofit sector: how are we to eliminate poverty in this world if we entrap our employees within it?

And so dear reader, now 18 months back home, I find myself adjusting to the world that I imagine many if not all returned volunteers face: how does one live with the urgency to expend every ounce of your talent towards fighting against a reality you were exposed to that is poverty, that you know is unjust and in need of repair. And how do you do that while juxtaposing it with a sincere and indeed acceptable desire to make enough money so that an unplanned expense such as a root canal doesn’t bring the prospect of financial misery for many more months to come? I wish I had an answer, but more often then not I find myself overly obsessed with a most frightening question: what if you are fairly certain of the career path that would bring you the greatest satisfaction and horribly uncertain if it can provide for a modest but comfortable lifestyle?