Friday, March 15, 2013

Selfless Selfish Service

I'm writing this blog in spirit of Americorps week, an annual celebration of the contributions made by Americorps members across the nation. Perhaps a bit of a shift from more recent posts, but I'll get back to the boring running posts shortly.
I’m an Americorps member. But don’t worry, I’m not about to get all patriotic on you. Normally, I’d follow that first statement with something snarky about indentured servitude, or working full time in a skilled position with a hard-won Master’s degree for roughly the equivalent of federal minimum wage, and the tone of my voice would imply that I’m a little bitter about it. But I wouldn’t mean it. Well, sometimes I would, but I’d regret that feeling later. 
 I’m an Americorps member because I believe in the importance of serving others, and doing our part to make the world a better place. I’m talking about giving some piece of yourself to benefit the greater good, whether that’s helping other people, or trying to save the natural world (or both! In my mind, those things are not really separable, but that’s a discussion for another day). It’s about making sacrifice, and giving back to the world that supports you, and it can take many different forms.
I live in a tent. Granted, it’s a pretty nice tent, and it has a woodstove. This is partly borne of an experiment in living simply, and partly of necessity to save money on rent to persist on a meager stipend. Tent-life is, in part, a sacrifice I’ve made to enable me to give a year of my life to service.
I’m not telling you this to get all high and mighty and inflict some self-righteous guilt upon you. My motivations are also selfish- I’m serving my Americorps term with American Rivers, a fantastic national nonprofit doing high-level work to protect and restore ournation’s rivers, and I’m gaining skills and experiences critical to developing a career in the nonprofit sector. It’s easy to think of this superficially as being cheap labor, but I prefer to think of myself in this position as a righteous tool for conservation. My service is providing skills and capacity at an affordable rate to an organization that is making real, meaningful differences to communities and the environment.
Some of my work with American Rivers has been coordinating restoration projects with a conservation corps, the Sierra Native Youth. We’ve pulled (a lot) of weeds, restored trails, and planted willows to stabilize degraded stream banks. It has been a powerful reminder of how much of a difference just a few sets of hands and a few hours can make. I can’t help but wonder just how incredibly different the world would be if everyone just spent an hour or two every week doing some sort of service. If everyone started tomorrow volunteered their skills or labor for just one (ONE!) hour a week, we could create unimaginable change. I will say with confidence that we could dramatically reduce or eliminate poverty and famine from our nation, drastically improve the quality of life for millions, save hundreds of species from extinction, restore thousands of acres of degraded wildlife habitat, clean up thousands of miles of rivers, or almost anything else you can imagine. And in doing so, we would become better and happier people ourselves along the way.
When was the last time you selflessly gave your time to make the world a better place? There is hardly a thing more rewarding or fulfilling than helping others. My grandmother grew up through the Great Depression, became a school teacher before it was socially acceptable for women to work outside the household, and witnessed the birth of every major civil rights and environmental movement. She was truly wise. Toward the end of her long and treasured time on this earth, my mother asked her what she felt were the most important things in life, about what made life worth living. She replied without hesitation, “reaching out your hand to somebody.” I know she is right.
I keep talking about selflessly giving yourself to benefit the greater good. I suppose, however, volunteering or serving can’t truly be selfless. When you improve the world around you, it gets better for you, too. Quit reading my blabbering, and get out there and do something good for the world!

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