I am sure folks have seen the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation floating around on Facebook:
I muse on that today as I get ready to go back to work. I am the director of a small community center in the heart of the most diverse square mile in the US. We are a gathering place for art, education, recreation and community building serving newly arrived refugees and long time residents. One in three residents is foreign-born and the local high school boasts over 57 languages! Over 40,000 individuals come through each year looking for all kinds of things: for help, for education, for fun; to serve, to grow, to celebrate. We have gardens, art, classes, social services, events, and a variety of programs. Wrapping around it all is a peace-making initiative of community engagement. We believe that if you have a chance to hang out with your neighbors, get to know them a bit, share food, art or sports then there is a good chance you will discover that people are not as “different” as you think they are; that having an opportunity to play or work with someone builds bridges. We find that sometimes simply coming in contact with people who are different from yourself opens up your heart and mind.
So as I get ready to return to work following the winter holidays, I am musing on the work of trying to do good in the world, to find satisfaction in the small scale, huge work of community building in this little town. I often wonder if it is making a difference. If I am making a difference. I have been there nearly five years now and I have seen a lot of things change. I have seen things get better despite some efforts to rip down and hinder any hint of progress. I see how the recession brought people together to bridge silos and to be more open about sharing resources. I see amazing creativity in working with little resources and getting amazing things done. Some days I see this.
Some days it just feels as though nothing is changing, nothing is getting better, People are stuck in their ways. There is ineptitude, rigidity and judgement. Often I feel like Sisyphus – pushing the rock up the hill only to have it crash back down upon me. If there is a lesson I have learned it is that true change is sloooowwww… Glacially slow… Mind numbingly, frustratingly slow. As an impatient person, I some days have trouble with this! I don’t want to have this conversation again, address this issue again, beat my head against this particular wall again…
Some days it feels not quite as satisfying as I imagine building a well in a rural village or opening a school where there is none, would be. Things that seem more romantic and more immediate. But I know deep in my heart that that conception is idealized. All of my Peace Corps friends talk about wondering if they are making any difference at all too. In international development work, people discover first hand how truly heavy and hard that rock is to push up the hill.
Some days, however, I see the pay off. I can certainly see the growth in the agency itself – all the incredible growth that has happened over five years. But I can see it in the community as well. Teens getting Gates scholarship, residents stepping up and putting on festivals, community working together, shy children able to speak confidently before their peers. Seeing people feel empowered and gaining confidence in their lives. But change is slow. Long standing social issues don’t change quickly. Generational poverty doesn’t go away overnight. Apartment complexes don’t get better in a month. Schools don’t turn around in a year. The problems are so multi-faceted and often interconnected.
The world is so large and I am so small. Is it enough, this small work that I do? Can I do more? Can I do more and stay sane? Not burn out? I need to pace myself for the long haul. Which sometimes means making personal choice for time out, for self care, for the kind of indulgence that is a privilege afforded me by virtue of being a middle class American. It might just be operating in mainstream American society for a couple days and not thinking about hungry people or access to health care or medicaid paper work. I have that luxury. I carry the fights within me; the injustices, the world devastation, the discrimination and intolerance but I can also choose to put them on a back burner for a moment and find renewal of spirit by checking out.
People in non-profit service industries tend to burn out and move around a lot. It is hard work being in the trenches. Some feel called by God to serve, others by a sense of moral injustice, others by a desire to give back. I have always been in non-profits – I saw the inequalities and injustices and knew that I couldn’t turn my back. That if I didn’t do it, it might not get done. I also know that I can’t do everything despite my care and awareness about all the issues. So I do what I can do and I seek satisfaction in so doing.
I work to live my life authentically. To model what I teach. To seek satisfaction in the small moments and to build community in all of my life. As I complete my 50th year I know that I have lived well and I believe I am making a difference. It may be small differences but what is life made of if not a collection of small moments and small circles of people reaching towards each other and the sky?