Tag Archives: service

What Should I Do? A Multicultural Answer

I am currently teaching a new course at Montana State University called Leadership Foundations. Thirty students ranging from 18 to over 40 are exploring together what it means to be a leader while learning some core skills.  As part of the course, each student must devote 10 non-class hours to some type of volunteer activity where he or she can practice leadership.

One of these students, while struggling to get those service learning hours accomplished, asked, “How do I know what projects are worth my time or which ones I should give up on?” She added, “Just how much energy do you put into something that looks like it is going to fail?”

Considering these questions, I recalled two others that guide my decisions on where to devote my time. When I am wrestling with what to do or not to do, I like to ask myself:

  1. If I were really brave, what would I try?
  2. Would I do this even if it might fail and others might reject me?

Reframed these questions could also be:

  1. What would I do if I knew I would succeed?
  2. What would I do anyway; no matter the final result?

The first question asks me to rise to my highest and best while the second makes sure I am doing something for the right reasons. My ego loves success and to have everyone love me; so, sometimes I can be drawn to a project if it might make me look good or bring some adoration – that’s seductive stuff! But, I am really at my best when I contribute happily regardless of what might be the ultimate outcome.

Steve Jobs, we learned in an earlier post, asks himself in the mirror each morning, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?” It seems that Jobs incorporates my two questions into one. I believe he is asking, is it bold enough, fun enough, substantive enough or right enough to be doing?

My friend David Baum taught me a similar centering technique derived from the Jewish tradition. He subscribes to an ancient proverb that says you should always keep one piece of paper in each of your front pockets. On one write, “I am part of the Divine,” and on the other scribble, “I am nothing but dust.” The wisdom comes, David reminds me, in knowing which to pull out of your pocket to guide your actions during your day.

Your appropriate next step in Buddhism is often called “right action.” In Hinduism it is referred to as “selfless service.” In both traditions we are counseled to be brave enough to get involved in life, and at the same time not to get attached to our desired results. To answer the inquiring Leadership Foundation student, these philosophies would say if the project will succeed or fail should not drive your decision. Instead the question should become, is it worth doing, would your involvement be of value to you, and to the world?Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

I am drawn to people who have clarity around right action. Today I was reading about thirteen indigenous grandmothers who have been gathering twice a year around the world to find ways to care for our future generations. In closing, I invite you to watch Grandma Bernadette as she describes why she has chosen to be part of the 13 and devote her time to their efforts.

Grandmother Bernadette’s Story from Laughing Willow on Vimeo.

fun + purpose = playing well at work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. – Aristotle

Meaning is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience, to open the most difficult of work to the dimension of joy and even gratitude. Meaning is the language of the soul. – Rachel Naomi Remen

A Montana State University Honors Instructor Lori Lawson and I took 16 college students to the Dominican Republic last May. These young adults had spent a semester considering the characteristics of dire poverty and how it might be solved. They had read about micro finance, volunteerism, and government aid and had formulated opinions on how we might alleviate suffering. Full of ideas, we undertook a two-week service learning trip visiting impoverished communities and NGOs. Although a class on global poverty, my journey became an exploration on how we can “be of use”.

The students observed a meeting where 15 community members had collectively taken out small loans with Esperanza, a DR based micro finance and literacy organization. When it came time to repay part of the loan to Esperanza’s representative, our group realized that two of the members were not present with their payment. By their contract, the remaining 13 were then responsible for the missing members’ payment. Over the next ten minutes there was heightened anxiety and conversation on who might pay extra or go find the missing borrowers. Meanwhile, the students watched. As one young woman Danielle later observed, “That was one of the most uncomfortable parts of our trip. I had the twenty bucks they needed in my pocket, which I could have easily given. I would have been like instant government aid, but would that have been a good idea?” The students wrestled with how when to give as a country, an NGO or as an individual is not necessarily an easy formula.

Later, we painted a row of shacks in another neighborhood for a couple of hours. As we began, the owners’ children all picked up paintbrushes to help. Before long, some of the grown up residents took up paint cans and joined in. Other residents grabbed brooms and machetes to sweep dirt floors and pull down overgrown brush. The street was strikingly different after just two hours as we progressed from dirty shacks to bright yellow, blue, green and rose colored homes absent of trash. Did we make great changes that day? I’m not sure, but it was fun being creative and to see the painted-covered joy on the faces of the little children.

Our students also spent an afternoon working in a small public library tutoring children who, in a country of high illiteracy, may not be able to find help at home. For some, this was their most favorite volunteer activity. I however noticed that I was more interested in fostering the young adult experience than working directly with the local children. To be of use, I was better suited to mentoring the young adults than sitting with the younger set.

We were supposed to spend a day pouring concrete floors for new homes in a batey or sugar plantation community. We were to work with Haitan immigrants who are typically discriminated against and the country’s most destitute. Everyone had packed diligently for this day bringing construction clothes and gloves for the task and were busy that morning discussing the best sun cover and insect repellent. A few administrative errors later it became clear that we would not be able to volunteer in this way. Many of us were extremely disappointed. I was hoping to learn about life in the batey and Haitan culture. Others were looking forward to problem solving and still others to the hard physical activity. One young woman complained that this day was the purpose for her journey. Although we would have to donate time and $1000 to spend a day straining our backs, the lack of this activity was a loss and I noticed how much potential joy could be wrapped up in giving.

I came out of that trip realizing that we gave best when there was a combination of both joy and sense of purpose. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien often says, “Look for what has heart and meaning.” I felt most fulfilled when I was both having fun and being useful to others.

Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown noted that after interviewing Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and polio researcher Jonas Salk that they were simply playing every day in their laboratories. Brown described Guillemin’s joy “as pure as that of a kid showing off a beautiful shell picked up at the seashore.” Meanwhile, their discoveries have saved countless lives and alleviated suffering. Financial guru Warren Buffett calls the resulting spirit of combining purpose with joy, “tap dancing to work.”

A core principle of the Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of serving others, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.” Paradoxically, we are then told in the Gita that not only should you work tirelessly, but also not care about the outcome. Hmmm, work really, really hard, but don’t worry about what it yields? Feels like an impossible riddle until I combine service with enjoying the task I am completing.

Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi

I just returned from an amazing week in the Dominican Republic supporting a Montana State Honors course on global poverty developed by my dear friend Lori Lawson. Along with sixteen students, we learned about micro lending, visited a batey (sugar plantation community) where poverty can be most harsh and also landed for a few fascinating days in Las Terrenas.

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Returning to people who play well, I want to introduce you to José Bourget and Annette Snyder. José and Annette live in a growing northern DR beach town. Once a small fishing village, Las Terrenas suffers from rising prices with grand homes of wealthy French, Germans and Dominicans along with striking poverty. Creeks run beside palm- and rusted metal-constructed shacks with no plumbing or visible latrines. Children run shoeless and often in only worn underwear or simply a torn t-shirt through mud and the creek water used for bathing, washing of pots and probably too much more to be safe. Meanwhile, the local, ex-patriot and surrounding church communities are not nearly as volunteer minded as we might assume.

When José decided to return to the Dominican Republic after living in the US for twenty plus years where he worked as a professor at the University of Maryland, he and Annette wanted to help alleviate suffering. So they founded a library with their own two young children in tow.

Anacaona Library

Anacaona Library


Why a library? What of the open-air dump with garbage piled twenty feet high picked over by birds and enterprising people upstream? What of the rising numbers in prostitution, including parents renting their children to foreign sex tourists? Or perhaps the endemic issue that although public school is free, to attend a child must have shoes, a uniform and supplies, something often beyond a poor parent’s grasp?

“The number one fact that keeps a person in dire poverty is illiteracy,” José explained, “We see that children with no support at home or unable to start school until 7 or 8 are often unable to keep up and drop out of school by age 10. Illiterate, they then are unable to get but the simplest of jobs and many times this is in prostitution. Teenagers become pregnant and the cycle continues.” Annette added,  “There is so much that can be tackled, but if we can provide a place for children to come in the afternoons where there is help with homework and books to read, that is a place to start.”

Visiting them this week I was struck by a number of ways that Annette and José are playing well. Although community needs are overwhelming, they seem to know how to balance vision with sustainability. To help, they must be able to provide support over the long haul. I was impressed by how they focused on first assuring that the library and an after school program are nurtured even though they have hopes to provide support to women wanting move out of prostitution and to address some of the great sanitation issues. They model “Dream, yet make sure you will be able to deliver.” 

Also, watching from a leadership standpoint, I believe their ability to encourage volunteers has greatly contributed to their success.  Since the local community does not embrace an attitude of volunteerism, Annette and Jose rely on foreign volunteers who come to work for one month to one year. If you have time, expertise and interest, Annette and José will engage your ideas on how to bring these to the community. For example, two young women visited for three months, bringing with them a self esteem/empowerment program for 15 teenaged girls they had developed. Others teach painting or beading after the children have completed their homework. The couple’s openness to new approaches to support their mission allows their team to tackle more. 

From Annette and José I will take away the practice of balance — Keep looking where I can help while determining what I can sustain. Hold a clear vision while being open to receiving novel support from a greater community.  Nurture well not only your own children (something they are doing in spades), but also those of your community. Serve, but don’t forget to spend time enjoying your surroundings as we did at lunch in El Lemon (Annette is wearing the lime green shirt, Lori is next to her and José sits across!). 

Lunch with Jose and Annette

Lunch with Jose and Annette


Meanwhile, the Anacaona library’s Spanish children’s book section is extremely well worn and very small. They have set a goal of 10,000 books by 2010 (they now have about 5000 in a variety of languages.). To help the library meet its goal, donate or volunteer  please visit www.fundacionmahatmagandhi.com