March 18, 2014 by Melody Porter
From this week’s volunteer listserv:
Fifteen years ago, I met some good friends through my graduate program. They visited me this weekend from their home in Raleigh, where they tutor a little boy, improve energy efficiency in old buildings, and wrangle and dote on their three lively grandchildren. Over breakfast we discussed the big questions of life, including, “how do you feel most connected to something bigger than you are alone?” For each of us, our first answer was the same – through other people.
I encourage you to take the idea of Ubuntu seriously. (That is, understanding that people are people through other people, in the words of Desmond Tutu.) How do the people around you make you more human, by their implicit requests to be heard and seen? How do the people you avoid make you more human, by calling you to humility and reflection? How do the people you haven’t met yet make you more human, by their proleptic promises to changing your life one day?
This week, I invite you to hear, see, be humble, reflect and eagerly await the ways so many people will transform you.
October 28, 2013 by Melody Porter
Branch Out held a Homecoming reception this weekend to welcome back alumni who participated in alternative breaks while they were here. It was quite a crowd, with people buzzing in from all over the world. Some of those I talked to had come from places as far away as Ireland, San Diego and Tanzania recently.
One student director alumna is working with migrant workers in North Carolina, developing education sessions on health and safety practices to share with them to mitigate the high risks they face in their labors. Another alumnus is studying for his master’s in higher education, and continues to be involved in alternative breaks – no longer as a site leader, but as an adviser. One former site leader talked about her work, which isn’t quite in the field she wants to be in, but she is busy finding ways to connect her experience in environmental sustainability to what she does. Another alumnus, who is now a community partner for one of our national trips, told me about his meeting earlier that day with the site leaders he’ll be working with this March. And one alumna wasn’t part of our program but stopped by to tell us about her recent time in East Africa, and to see about ways that she could support our two international alternative breaks that go to countries where Swahili is spoken.
The vision of Branch Out alternative breaks is to create a community of active and educational individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice. Throughout the year, I see this happening in different ways. I see it when our site leaders gather and work together to develop trips that will support community-driven work for social change. I see it when participants on a trip laugh together over simple meals eaten in community center basements, and later struggle together in reflection about how to tutor better tomorrow. And last night, I saw how this community continues even when it is dispersed across the world, as breakers who continue to live out their unique commitments to social justice met up with current program leaders and participants who welcomed them back with gracious hospitality, eager to hear their stories and glimpse into their futures as active citizens.
June 5, 2013 by Melody Porter
I was recently invited to share some remarks at the volunteer appreciation event at WindsorMeade, and wanted to pass them along to you, cyber world!
I first started volunteering because of Burger King. My youth group at church had begun a regular Youth Work Day on Saturday mornings, where a bunch of us would pile into the back of our leader’s truck, head to the homes of people who needed repairs and yard work done (but couldn’t do it themselves), and wrangle tools we were unqualified to handle, like hedge trimmers and spackle knives. The idea was that the folks who lived in these homes could stay in them longer, and we’d get a taste of what we knew was good for us – to give to others. Though, as I mentioned, a huge motivator for me was the promise of heading to Burger King afterward, getting a Whopper Jr., and acting like I was cool with a crown on my head. Whatever it takes, right?
Though, of course, you can guess that much more than I expected actually happened in those work days. I got to know some of those people whose homes we went to, and I learned how much I liked them. They’d bring out a tray of lemonade, or offer a rest in the air conditioning for a few minutes, and during that time, I’d tell them about school while they told me about their lives. Quite a few of those folks became long-time beloved by those of us in the youth group, and I remember keenly feeling a special kind of grace from them in the midst of my unpracticed yard work skills.
For many of us, community service begins something like this. We hear of a need and respond to it. Peoples’ yards are overgrown, and we have hedge trimmers; kids are falling behind in math, and we have accountants with free time on Tuesday evenings; families are struggling to get enough protein after a parent lost one of her two jobs, and the synagogue does a peanut butter drive. Problem solved. Right?
In my work in the Office of Community Engagement, we do a lot of service that looks much like what I’ve described. Hundreds of students each year go on alternative break trips and build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or tutor kindergartners each week at Matthew Whaley, or prep and deliver healthy meals to our neighbors in public housing. And that solves the problem, sort of. A family gets a safe, stable and affordable house that they can call home. A child gets the attention that she longs for and needs to be able to progress at school. And a family has the energy they need to focus for the joys and challenges they face every day.
Our goal, though, is that our service goes a little deeper than addressing the challenges before us as a community by solving them as isolated problems, and that our students begin to see the bigger equation. So we make sure they understand the issue ahead of time by having them seek resources and to learn in some depth about that issue. In a place known for its beautiful housing, why do so many struggle to find a permanent home? Why do children need volunteer tutors in kindergarten, when schools are supposed to be fully staffed? What does hunger look like in our community? What policies and choices make each of these struggles a reality for so many of our neighbors and friends?
We take that educational process, and add to it their participation in community service, and conversation with others who are serving along with them to reflect on their experience. Through this process, our students start to see that bigger picture – the master equation, perhaps, or the root causes that lie behind the need for their service in the first place. Then the next time they build, tutor or serve, they might do so better. And ultimately, our hope is that this process equips them to take action on a bigger scale so that the isolated problems don’t have to be solved one by one, but ultimately we can create communities that come together to heal and bring wholeness so that all can reach their full potential, not just stop gaps so that no one falls through.
This may sound like a pretty academic approach. Just get the students to study the issues, talk about it, and keep going back, and boom! things change.
What we know, though, is that this equation of community service can’t be easily reduced to study + service + reflection = change. Because what keeps most of us going back is that elusive, and sometimes unplanned for, connection that comes about when we step outside ourselves to interact with others we might not otherwise have met. When people know that we take them as seriously as we take ourselves, and when we get to know them with honest curiosity, there’s a kind of secret math that makes that whole – the relationships we develop through service – greater than their sum.
For a while after college, I volunteered as a Writer in Residence for a community arts program in my neighborhood in Philadelphia. I have to confess to liking the hoity-toity sound of my title at the time, but what it looked like in reality was me, up in front of a room of fifth graders – some of whom had never written more than a partial sentence and were in fact, more interested in slamming each other up against the wall – grasping at how to teach them to write poetry. As I sought resources for this daunting job, I met with a man who had done similar work in area schools for years. He had actually written the book on it. So he recommended lots of resources to me – including that book he had written – and others that had writing prompts and poem starters. But perhaps most helpfully, he told me that I absolutely had to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Friere, a man who was born in Brazil and developed critical pedagogy theory through his work as an educator around the world.
Maybe some of you have read it, too. But just in case, this is the part that blew my mind, and gave me helpful images and terms that helped me better articulate my understanding of what it means to “serve,” through the lens of education. Friere talks about how so often, educators become the “narrating subject” while students become the “listening object,” receptacles of knowledge who are expected to then be able to dish that exact knowledge back out. He calls it the “banking concept of education,” in which students – expected only to “receiv[e], fil[e] and stor[e] the information” are reduced to receivers of knowledge, not those who can explore it, mix it up or transform it in any way. And the outcome of this is that hierarchies between student and teacher are deepened.
What he proposes instead, is an approach focused on inquiry, where dialogue is central between the student and teacher, and where both are changed in the process. And the result is, as he says, “a constant unveiling of reality,” which helps people realize their “vocation of becoming more fully human.”
Of course, he says a lot more than that. But I bring these words to you today because for me, they touch on the soul of not just education, but also community service. I think it was brilliant for that poet to suggest that I read Friere, because the heart of his message isn’t only true about teaching. It points to how we should be interacting with each other, particularly when we’re in contact with people who are in some way different than us. If we do service right, with humility and curiosity, and looking for ways we can all change, service helps us become more in touch with reality, more connected to each other as we break down hierarchies, and it centers us in the deep pursuit of what it means to become fully human.
It puts us in touch with what in South Africa is known as Ubuntu – that people are people through other people, and that we can’t exist as humans without each other. Service isn’t just about the little acts we do, but about the big things that can happen – in our hearts and in our societies – when our vision and perspective is changed like this.
That’s what happened to me when I was hacking away at bushes at the homes of my fellow church members when I was a teenager. And that’s what happened to me in those Philadelphia classrooms, and later as one of the students happened upon me as I gardened in my front yard after class one day – and she continued to stop by and help me water and weed from time to time.
I’m betting that’s what’s happened to you, too, as you’ve been engaged in service with WindsorMeade. Along with so many others who have experienced the broadening that happens beyond what we might expect when we embark on this adventure of growth and love, I am happy to celebrate that with you.
November 15, 2012 by Melody Porter
Thanks to the initiative of my colleague Elizabeth Miller, some of us in the Office of Community Engagement – and others across campus – are joining in a Food Stamp Challenge. That means that we’ve committed to eating on a budget of $4.31 per person per day, which aligns with the budget we’d have if we were receiving SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
While I’ve done similar activities before, I’m particularly aware this year of some of my privileges that this exercise is exposing, and I want to share them with you.
Privilege #1: The choice
I should acknowledge that the first privilege I’m deeply aware of is that I’m choosing this activity. Especially as I talk with people about it, I am aware that an exercise like this could be seen more as a weird form of poverty tourism – reality TV with food stamps! – rather than an act of solidarity. And so I write this with awareness that my choice to undertake this challenge ultimately only has power and dignity if I can learn something, share something, and take action to build a better food system for all.
Privilege #2: Supporting local food systems
In my first day of the Challenge, I was composing a shopping list for potato soup: potatoes, milk, cheese and a few carrots. Because of my interest in contributing to a thriving local food system, I typically would buy local versions of each of these things in my charming little locally-owned grocery store. And I’d pay for it. Local stuff isn’t always more expensive, but at $3.49 for 10 pounds, mass-produced potatoes from Idaho on sale at the Kroger are probably less than what I would have found from a farm around the corner. Kroger brand cheddar – also on sale – would also be cheaper than anything I’d find from an artisan Virginia cheese maker. All of this made me realize that, to maximize my $4.31, I’d absolutely have to buy the mass-produced, non-organic food.
A large motivator for me in buying local and organic is that the workers on smaller scale farms are very likely treated much better than the migrant labor I presume is involved in the production of some of my cheaper foods for the week. (Having met some of the workers on my local farm, and volunteered with the families of migrant laborers in California, I’ve felt comfortable drawing this conclusion.) And so I realized that the privilege I have of spending more on food also allows me the privilege of opting out, if to a small extent, of a system that keeps other people down. But people who receive SNAP benefits must participate in a food system that values profits more than effects on growers and the land. So the choices that people who are struggling must make can end up causing others to struggle as well.
Privilege #3: Hospitality
I had invited a friend over for dinner on Monday night. Even while I had planned to offer this simple potato cheese soup meal, I didn’t think I could get away with serving only soup without feeling like a bad host. So I sautéed up some green beans I had gotten at the farmer’s market, and even sliced and toasted a day-old “Manager’s Special” whole grain boule (only $1.55 for the loaf!) from the Kroger.
I have realized how much cooking in bulk is helpful on a limited budget, so I could count my friend’s portion as a meal when doing my math for the per-portion cost in my calculations. Still, if I were really on food stamps, I wouldn’t have been able to share that meal with her without skipping a meal myself. When the hospitality of food is one of the most basic ways we can connect with each other, what are the societal effects when simple economics make this impossible for 47 million people who receive SNAP benefits every day?
So, back to Privilege #1 – I’m off to contact my representatives to share my experience with them, and advocate for legislation that promotes a heartier sustainable food system.
September 25, 2012 by Melody Porter
Last week, I achieved a goal that has been nagging at my to-do list since I first saw a figure gliding down the James River last summer on a surf-board looking thing: I signed up for a Stand-Up Paddle lesson. After 150 short minutes on the water with a paddle in my hands and a board under my feet, I freely use the acronym, SUP, like I know what I’m doing. I also have seen and appreciated lots of parallels to how SUP relates to my life in general. Please allow me to share.
1) You’re going to fall off your board.
Well, if you’re the other four people in my group SUP lesson, you won’t. But if you’re me, you will fall in. Twice. I was the only kid in my ballet class to be denied pointe shoes when the time came, and those balance issues have followed me to present day. Thing is, if you like being in the water like I do, falling off isn’t so bad – you get to swim! And that stinky life jacket you’re wearing finally has a purpose.
Obvious metaphor here: we all bring our own difficulties and shortcomings to life, and sometimes may get derailed from what we had hoped or expected to do. But the fall can bring a shift, and a chance to show that you have the gumption to get up again. (Even if the instructor has to hang back with you and coach you through it.)
2) When you lose your balance, put your paddle in the water.
When I felt wobbly, I was tempted to use my paddle as a balance bar, as if I were up on the high wire in a sparkly unitard. The counter-intuitive thing about SUP is that putting your paddle in the water and pushing forward even before you fully have your balance helps you find your balance. Sort of like how you accelerate mid-curve while driving a windy road, to help pull you out of it.
It occurred to me that a lot of times, when we’re feeling uncertain about what’s coming up for us, we’re tempted to pull back and brace a bit for whatever may be coming. SUP reminds me that staying in the thick of things and trusting the river to work with you will make it easier to gain your footing.
3) Every once in a while, shift.
Because I had fallen off my board twice already, I was pretty frozen into position once I did gain my balance. It wasn’t until about an hour down the river, though, that I realized how frozen I was. My toes were cramping, all curled up and anxious. Our instructor encouraged us to shift a bit – move this foot forward, this foot to the side. And as much as I doubted my ability to do so while remaining upright, I went for it. Water eased over the side of the board, I swiveled my hips a little, and pushed my paddle back into the classic j-stroke.
Comfort tempts us to settle in to routines and patterns, whether that’s hanging out with the same people, studying the same thing even if it doesn’t really feel like us anymore or thinking about things and other people the same way we always have. Not only is it relieving to let go of something that can be cramp-inducing; it is refreshing to let the water of the shift roll over us as the river proves its trustiness in holding us up.
4) When you have your balance, take your paddle out of the water.
As much as being fully upright on that board made me feel connected to ancient river travel (and maybe made me feel a little bit awesome), my most serene moment on the river was when I took my paddle out of the water. I eased down to a kneel, and then onto my back, stretching the length of my board. My peripheral vision was full from horizon to horizon with water, trees, sky, birds, sky, trees and water again. A couple of huge flocks of Canada geese cut through the muted pastel sunset, and the wind shook the leaves, making the trees look like they had gotten a chill.
For those of us who like to get the most we can out of our little lives, it’s hard not to have our paddles in the water – or our eyes on our to-do lists and our calendars full – all the time. But as someone who can’t resist saying yes to every challenge, I’ve learned in spite of myself that our lives aren’t full if they don’t have some emptiness in them, too. Space to rest, to listen, to let openness bring potential and renewal that would have been overlooked had I not taken my paddle out for a stroke or two.
September 6, 2012 by Melody Porter
This fall, a grassroots committee of women staff, faculty and students are kicking off a pilot project we’re calling WM2: William and Mary Women’s Mentoring. It all began this past February, when Elizabeth Miller and I watched Miss Representation, a screening sponsored by the Student Assembly and facilitated by Kim Green. The movie shows a quick peek into an evening of mentoring for women in Washington DC, and immediately it clicked: We have to do this at William and Mary.
There are a lot of reasons that a mentoring program makes sense at William and Mary, but I’ll start with one: there is wisdom here, and it should be shared. At our last planning meeting, I asked the committee to share their advice for incoming women in these early days on campus, and here is their trove of good advice for you. Take it, savor it and share it with others!
- Don’t feel like you’re the only woman with doubt. Exposing a little bit of vulnerability will bring a lot of support, rather than feeling isolated. (inspired by this post on the blog, joythebaker.com)
- I hope that women who enter campus now are worried less about superficial aspects regarding their appearance and sexuality now than women were 10 or 15 years ago.
- See the opportunities, and have the courage and sense of empowerment and people to ask to figure out how to achieve those opportunities.
- You can disconnect in order to connect. Turn off cell phones to have meaningful conversations. Don’t build a relationship based off of Facebook. Disconnect enough to feel confident walking around campus alone – connect with yourself.
- Feel comfortable enough to challenge some of the ways you thought previously, and allow those challenges to shape who they might become.
- “Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - Christopher Robin, to Pooh Bear. My hope is that every woman on this campus hears that from someone and is able to internalize it.
- I hope that you will find a group of people who help you to realize that it’s okay to be who you are. Remember the quote: “How you live your days is how you live your life.” Stay focused as you find your niche so you can live good, productive lives.
- Find those niches, and don’t be afraid to look for them, to make mistakes, to try something and fail, to speak in public, make your voice heard, take a risk – that’s where you find out who you are and what motivates you.
- My first year of college was so, so fun – totally full of silliness. I hope that you can take life seriously enough to not take it seriously. Do it with lightness that honors the depth that there is, because the depth of life is that it is really fun, too. Live your life with fullness because that’s all you have!
And, if you’re interested in being a part of the pilot year of WM2, join us for an Evening of Women’s Mentoring, September 19 from 4 to 6:30 pm. We will have a collective of W&M women faculty and staff sharing their expertise on personal and professional empowerment for female students at the College in roundtable discussions. We hope to match many of the attendees of this event to a year-long mentoring pair. For more information and to attend, check out the interest form. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
April 21, 2011 by Melody Porter
A friend recently said that when Igor Stravinsky sat down to compose, he was struck by the blank page and its infinity of possibilities. At once thrilling and terrifying, all these possibilities! And even if we were to bisect the page with a large black line, as another friend pointed out, there would still be an infinity of possibilities to come. And then, if we were to draw a big red chicken on top of the line, there would remain, again, an infinity of possibilities for what that page might hold.
This blank-page mindset – so many possibilities yet nothing yet concrete or filled-in – is very real for many of our graduating seniors right now. How many times have you been asked what you’re going to do after graduation? “Do you have a job?” “Have you heard back from the Peace Corps yet?” “Did you get your first-choice med school?” If you don’t yet have an answer, it can be so painful to hear these questions, and to wrestle with them yourself.
So often, what we long for in the face of the unknown is not the best outcome, but really, just something. Anything, really, as long as we can imagine it, and as long as we have a response when people ask us those questions.
I have a couple of things to say to our dear seniors out there, who are still waiting for their pages to fill in a bit. First, remember Stravinsky, and try to focus on the thrill (rather than the terror!) of so much possibility. It is a gift to have many ideas about what you like, and many options to pursue. But when you feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of possibilities, remember Stravinsky, and know that you’re in good company.
Secondly, imagine that you do dive in and take that job you’re not sure about. Say that job is the big black line on your blank page. As you learn more about your vocation, and yourself, you still get to draw on that paper over and over again. The first black line is not where your art ends. You can take other steps, continue to figure things out, maybe even end up doing something five years from now you never would have dreamed today. Rather than worrying about what you’re going to do with your whole life, think about what you’re going to do next. There’s always time to paint a big red chicken if need be!
Though even Google has not helped me find the origins of the Stravinsky quote or verify its accuracy, I think I will often return to this idea. Even when we think we have it all figured out and our pages are filled with beauty and variety, the infinite remains. In fact, it’s there all the time, and every choice you make only makes more infinity possible.