Saturday, May 22, 2010

I'm younger than that now

I officially feel old.

My students from St. Joseph University's Service-Learning program graduated this May, which makes me very proud. Stanley, Michael, Tim, and Kristin (pictured above) all taught me the most important lesson about community outreach: how to relax and to listen.

At the start, the four freshmen were not enthusiastic about their Service-Learning assignment. Other St. Joe's students had more tangible service sites, like teaching children to read at an after-school program. Walking around downtown Philadelphia and engaging homeless people in conversation, oftentimes without seeing any direct result, seemed a waste of time.

I wasn't too enthusiastic about their Service-Learning assignment, either. I envisioned forming a dedicated cadre of outreach workers who would discuss serious issues about community empowerment. College students sharing the highlights of parties from the night before were not the type of volunteers I desired.

The root of my frustration was how I saw myself. Four months earlier, my main concerns were drinking beer, chasing women, and passing exams -- in that order. Heck, I had been hosting the kind of house parties that these students were all about. But now I was a bad-ass Jesuit Volunteer setting the streets on fire with social justice. It was time to focus on ending homelessness. We had work to accomplish. What didn't these freshmen understand?

It took a frustrating month for me to learn that lecturing about street outreach just made me seem dumbass and pompous. Instead, I realized that actively listening to the students was just as important to a successful outreach as listening to the homeless.

Hearing these students talk about parties -- all of which were funny stories -- got us to relax and relate to each other while on outreach, and it helped me to understand who each student was as a person, which made me a better leader. 

"Narrative is the most powerful thing we have," says Jerry Kellman, who taught a young Barack Obama the ropes of civic engagement. "From a spiritual point of view, much of what is important about us can't be seen. If we don't know people's stories we don't know who they are. If you want to understand them or try to help them, you have to find out their story." I discovered that finding stories about one another strengthened our collective ability to engage the homeless in a more authentic, casual dialogue.

These Service-Learners soon became my best outreach team, and I looked forward each week to spending an evening with them. And we began to talk about homelessness, substance abuse, and civic engagement while conducting outreach, which they then shared in class. Most importantly for me, their insights on the importance of our service were critical during what became a long, bitter winter filled with inner turmoil. We learned how to understand one another through caring about each other as a team. We became friends.

The memories of these students remain some of my most rewarding of Street Outreach. Congratulations, guys! I can't wait to hear about your future accomplishments.

Update: Tim has joined Teach for America and will be serving in Philadelphia next year!