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Don't Make Someone Else Row Harder for You: How to get Involved in your Community

“Every person you meet is an opportunity for education,” Jennifer Hatchett, Executive Director of Youthserve told me. After a second of hesitation she added, “and people are so fascinating. They really are.” Youthserve is an organization in the heart of Birmingham which, according to its mission statement, “promote(s) youth volunteerism and leadership while giving youth the tools to make their communities a better place.” The method by which this achieved: “connecting young people across real and perceived boundaries to promote civic engagement, leadership, and community service.”

I’ve worked with Youthserve and Ms. Hatchett for almost five years now and found the organization to fulfill its mission statement exceedingly well. At times, however, I still get hung up on the “real and perceived boundaries” and noticed through conversation that many of my classmates do as well.

I approached Ms. Hatchett with a question that had been on my mind for many years: what is the best way to approach community involvement if your “knapsack of privilege” is so full? I am caucasian, heterosexual, and one all of us students can relate to, have been given an incredible education. At times, it’s felt as if I do not have a right to contribute to the social justice narrative because I have not experienced sufficient struggle to empathize with important causes. Ms. Hatchett acknowledged that she’s had this discussion many times, and although the answer seems simple, it’s a continuous discourse between communities.

When I first posed the question, her initial response was one I wasn’t expecting: “It’s not just about moving forward an agenda of social justice. From any point of view, the best thing to do is believe people. To be an ally of anyone, you must first listen to them, and even if it is not your experience, you must believe what they tell you is their experience.”

While this statement is true, I thought we needed to take a step back: how do we even start these conversations? Ms. Hatchett explained that, as a parent, the tendency is to shelter children, because we want our kids to enjoy being kids for as long as they can. When this goes on for too long, a young people can be startling upon entering the wider world to find that it’s nothing like what they thought it would be. It’s by seeing different communities and meeting new people that we discover all that we have in common. Children of privilege are often taught to be afraid of communities they’re not familiar with, so it’s a matter of being willing to get out and see that your perception is not always reality. “If you have the opportunity to talk to people from any neighborhood that is not your own, you should,” Mrs. Hathcett said. “And nine times out of ten, you are going to find some common ground.”

Even so, there is absolutely a right way and a wrong way to go about service work. It goes back to being a good listener and discovering what kind of help is both needed and being asked of you before you act. Your actions must be with the community rather than “for and to the community.” A common fallacy that well-intentioned philanthropists fall prey to, Mrs. Hatchett explained, is “to think that if someone doesn’t live just like them, they must be miserable. What they do want is an equal shot--an equal opportunity which often they don’t get.” So beware entering an impoverished community with the idea of turning it into something that looks more like your own. Your efforts may not end up helping the community at all.

What  if your help is not wanted? I asked Ms. Hatchett. Should you respect the community’s wishes and back down even if you aren’t able to contribute to a cause you are passionate about? Or should you be persistent and continue to fight for what you believe in? Once again, her response threw me for a loop. If anyone refuses your offer of help, you need to ask why, she advised. Then listen to the response and try to adjust your approach to something more acceptable to the group you wish to help. Shying away from honest dialogue about complicated issues gets us nowhere, Ms. Hatchett continued. It’s okay for communities to have different opinions, and sometimes it’s important to discuss those differences just with members of your own community. But what’s not okay is to retreat into your own community’s beliefs and stay there. When you do that, you're living in an echo chamber.

After my conversation with Mrs. Hatchett, I realized that my real problem was fear. My fear of failure. My fear that my services wouldn’t be welcomed. Mrs. Hathcett acknowledged that I might experience rejection or failure, but she told me to keep  moving forward even if I did. Failure is an inevitable part of life; it’s how you react to it that matters.

The current state of affairs requires all hands on deck if we want to make our communities better. “You can’t just expect the wheels of democracy to roll without everyone turning them,” Ms. Hatchett said. “When you don’t participate, you’re just asking someone to turn those wheels for you, and it’s really not fair.” At one point, she recalled, it seemed as though “we were all on a huge Noah’s arc–sized boat, and two people were rowing it. Perhaps it’s time we all started working a little harder to turn those wheels together.”

- Ada Cohen '18