As I mature, I am realizing that the best of me is more often than not directed toward someone else. As a professor, I am an educator and I continually strive to give to my students the educational experience they deserve. As a scholar and activist, I align my research with a subject matter – poverty and food insecurity – that is very meaningful for myself and others, and which is utilized to enact social change. In service – the definition of acting for and with others (not towards an other), my focus remains on presenting my best self for their betterment.
The difference in my service compared to my teaching and research is that I try quite hard to remain in the shadows. Lecturing and being a scholar-activist are very public roles, whether in front of a classroom or audience. Volunteering – giving back – for me is not.
Thus as I mature, I have determined that acts of honest service are acts of humility; they should be engaged in order to address some need or issue. To seek recognition, awards, or congratulatory remarks contradicts true altruistic benevolence. Rather, I prefer to leave these actions where they matter most – for the recipients of my privilege. Which is why my “volunteer story” is not focused on one direct action or one day of servitude, but toward my gratitude to be able to give.
It is a humble, honest feeling to be able to act for others. I say this from my privileged perch as a white, middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual male. I have no fears for myself or my family as I leave my house each day, but I continually confront real people in real situations who cannot claim such opportunities. Real people living not for the next best thing, but in conditions that provide a life of varying hardships, uncertainties, and suspicions; lives nonetheless lived because they are given no other choice. These are the people for whom I serve, real people as they are, with no pretensions and no reservations.
As I mature, I have found that I appreciate much more the experiences of everyday people, learning much by acting and interacting with real struggles in real situations. I have the tremendous gratitude to have embraced true humility by listening to families going through foreclosure on their home; from mothers visiting food pantries in order to feed their children; from watching parents sort through donated clothing to ensure their children will be warm once winter comes; from watching abused and neglected children attempt to thrive mental and physical challenges; from working alongside elementary school students as they struggle to make 2+2=4; from sitting and talking with my elders over meals at soup kitchens, shelters, and fast-food restaurants; and seeing eye-to-eye, face-to-face, that each of these individuals and families are not worse, nor better than me—we are one in the same.
And to serve them is to serve myself, to give back is to receive. But to ask for a medal, a badge, or a prize for all of this, to me, is disingenuous. Certainly, it is wonderful to be thanked and even be offered a t-shirt, but this is not my volunteer story. My story is in the smiles of those who are enjoying a warm meal, from the momentum of witnessing students learn, from seeing the hope in the eyes of the hopeless, and from each embrace with reality.
I appreciate quotes because they provide a means to gain wisdom from others. One quote that I feel directly captures my volunteer story – my vision of service – is from the Buddha, who states, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” To me this says that we are not diminished by giving of ourselves, as long as the giving is pure. The flame of the candle is essential, and being shared from one to another, helps each of us achieve our purpose, our potential. You cannot get more elemental than that.
Dr. Michael Gillespie is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Eastern Illinois University. He currently runs a blog at http://colescountypovertydataproject.wordpress.com/. Dr. Gillespie serves as a Faculty Fellow for Lawson Hall, is the adviser for the Sociology/Anthropology Club, advises the newly formed Hunger Action Team, is an honored (and honorary) member of EIU’s chapter of the National Residence Hall Honorary, and serves as an allied faculty member in the Women’s Studies Program. Dr. Gillespie’s, or Prof G (a nickname given to him by students), research focus is on the historical and contemporary circumstances of poverty and food insecurity at the national, state, and local levels.