I’m on vacation this week, so I’m spending a lot of my mental energies thinking about clam chowder and beach judo. Beach judo is pretty sweet by the way, if you happen to have some spare judo uniforms, which of course my brother and I do. Much has been the flipping and throwing action.
I’m really excited because Shira and I are nominated for a Service Nation Hero award here in Boston, a project of Be the Change Inc., which is seeking to strengthen American democracy through service collaboration. It’s a cool honor, and we could win burritos! Seriously, you should vote for us, and all of your other favorite community change leaders and good samaritans on their voting page.
I’m writing about this here because nominating my mentors and friends, and getting nominated, has helped me continue some of my thinking about service, and what it means (it’s also a good way for me to shamelessly self-promote). In my junior or senior year of high school (I’m a little hazy on the timeline), a soup kitchen opened up on the street behind my dad’s office in New Haven. About once every two weeks or so for about six months, I joined a couple of other friends and we went to help out at the soup kitchen on a Thursday or Friday night, preparing food for the evening meal. I’d get there at around 2 or 3 p.m., and hang around until probably 5:30 or 6 making the food and getting it ready, and then we’d rotate out for the next crop of volunteers who came in to actually serve the food and interact with the patrons. It worked well for me because I could keep a change of clothes at dad’s office, and because I could still get home by 6ish to do my homework.
I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time volunteering for what I felt were social change organizations and vehicles, because I liked working with ideas and trying to build something that would last long enough to challenge our current system. I worked with a middle school education program for a while, and was drawn to work at BARCC and NOMAS-Boston because I felt like they all worked to create a new platform for either education or survivors or gender relations that could reform the broken and rotten parts of society. I could devote an awful lot of time to those types of causes, but I’ve never equalled my time at the soup kitchen since with any other direct service volunteering.
The really good thing about that type of volunteering was that it let me do something immediate and direct. Someone would eat better, for one night at least, as a result of the food that kitchen made, and I’d had a hand in making it the nights I was there. I could devote an evening of my week to doing that, and it wasn’t an all-consuming life passion, it didn’t take a huge amount of my time, and it didn’t require that I knew a ton about the economics of food preparation and distribution. In essence, the cost of getting involved in that work at the soup kitchen was really low: I needed to show up and be enthusiastic and willing to help.
One of the seemingly intractable problems of pushing back our epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the US is the fact that rape is so intimately tied to so many other aspects of our culture: to gender, to sex, to power, to the criminal justice system. To fight this one issue, we’re really taking on a much bigger picture than that - it’s like trying to take out a weed in your backyard and realizing that it belongs to a redwood. In my case, fighting for a more just society without the threat of sexual violence (or at least AS MUCH sexual violence) gets intensely frustrating because I never get enough time or opportunity to talk to groups or people about all of these other issues that are tied into rape. And, while I might be able to get most people to agree with me that rape is bad and we should prevent it, I’ll lose some of those folks when I start to talk about changing gender roles. I’ll lose more of them when I start to talk about power issues. Eventually, I’ll just be hanging out with a small group of people who are already on my side. In fact, they’ve been doing the same things I have, saying many of the same things, and seeing many of the same glazed-over eyes and losing more and more of their audience as they get deeper in the rabbit hole of issues that rape touches. If I want to keep doing culture change, I need to stay up on current research, I need to learn new mechanisms for reaching people who don’t share my cultural backgrounds, and I need to learn how to deal with constant defeat, rejection of my ideas, and slow, slow, slow progress. In many cases, the cost of culture change work is really high. We ask activists and visionaries to give up a LOT of time, energy, emotional balance, and personal life for difficult fights and little visible progress. That’s not all that appealing to a lot of folks.
The individuals who create, manage, and run things like soup kitchens, Community Servings, and other similar direct service programs face the same problems, with the added burden of not getting the recognition they deserve. In general, though (with the exception of BARCC!), direct service organizations have done a way better job of making volunteering easy and fun and available than culture change organizations. Sexual violence, much like hunger, won’t be eradicated by the work of an organization: it will be reduced and eventually eliminated because of the elbow grease of millions of volunteers. The more sustainable that service is, the less it requires people to completely change their lives to do it and the more people you can bring into the work because the costs of doing that type of work aren’t as high. This is not at all true for the people doing the higher-level work in direct service organizations, of course, and many organizations have dual-missions (including BARCC).
I’m probably not going to stop throwing myself into culture change work full-force because this is what I want to do for my career, and for my life. I am recognizing now, though, that I’m probably be spending a lot of my time with a small knot of people who think the same things that I do. If I want to truly expand the movement to end sexual violence, I need to find ways to enlist friends, associates - my community - to help me do the basic, low-level work of making our world better. I can’t ask every one to “stop rape.” Even the small, committed group of social-change revolutionaries can’t. Asking the rest of the population to stop rape is going to turn them off and push them further away from our movement and our goals.
Can we pitch smaller things though, smaller actions and activities as service? Most of us already have an experience like mine at the soup kitchen - many of us already volunteer and do so because we like it. Asking friends to do something that makes them feel good and is quick to do - that’s going to build the movement. Asking them to walk in the BARCC walk, or donate $5, or to just not call their female friends sluts, or to start practicing really low-level enthusiastic consent is fast, simple, and makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and in many ways, we already have a model for talking about this low-level society changing work in the form of volunteering and service. I’m going to try it out and see if I can’t start making some small but essential changes and bring some additional people into this movement that way.