Service: A two way street

During the summer of 2010, I traveled to the slums of Mexico City for a faith-based service trip. I worked within a team of three Americans for seven weeks, living with a host family in the slums of Las Lomas de San Isidro on the city’s outskirts. We partnered with a nonprofit to teach English in the schools, organize an Olympic-style tournament for the kids and advertise community programs, such as water purification centers. I had the opportunity to meet many religious and political leaders within the slum community and to assimilate into my host family’s daily life.
Throughout the summer, I found that many of my service activities were focused on building relationships, and the interactions did not always provide tangible results. This radically changed my idea of what service meant and how I could personally grow from such experiences. Adjusting to a new culture in a healthy way was closely tied to my willingness to listen and learn. I was so enthusiastic and ready to discover more about the culture, the community, the economic conditions and even the history of Mexico. I was humbled by the generosity exhibited by my host family and was forced to develop the foreign skill of finding happiness in simplicity. Detachment from technology allowed me to more completely focus on my surroundings and my new relationships.
I went to Mexico because I have closely followed the immigration debate and have even traveled to the Texas-Mexico border on an Alternative Break trip to hear viewpoints from the front lines. A personal connection not only serves as a mechanism for compassion but as a way to eliminate apathy and stay connected to the humanity of a social issue. We Americans abstractly hear about our position of privilege, yet we often lack an experiential basis of comparison. I wanted to see what the world was like outside of the socioeconomic wealth and apparent privilege of America. In addition, I am very interested in issues of environmental justice, as many natural-resource management problems disproportionately affect those with less money and societal leverage.
I strongly believe in the importance of actively forming cross-cultural relationships and seeing new viewpoints. You do not have to go to Mexico or another country to have this type of experience. In a community service context, you can specifically focus your time, talents and resources in a way that takes you outside your social comfort zone. For you, that might mean spending time with homeless people in Washington and choosing to focus on their humanity rather than their economic status. It may mean driving to Langley Park, volunteering at an immigrant day-care center such as CentroNia and hearing about the kids’ lives and unique challenges. It may mean getting a group of friends together to make cookies for the cleaning staff on your dorm floor. However we decide to act, we must keep in mind the reciprocal nature of community service and how much other people can teach us through their views and life experiences.
Whitney Beck is a junior environmental science and policy major. She can be reached at wbeck1990 at gmail dot com. This column was originally submitted to the Leadership & Community Service-Learning Office’s Spirit of Service essay contest in December.
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