When I was in seventh grade, a man came to talk to us about his work in Africa as a member the Peace Corps. As part of his presentation, he showed a video of Cesar Chavez, the civil rights activist who, at the time, was participating in a fast to bring attention to the working conditions of farmworkers, most notably in California. As I sat there in the auditorium mouthing the words “si se puede” over and over with my two best friends, I had no idea what the words truly meant.
The speaker showed us pictures of starving children in Biafra, a region in Africa that had seceded from Nigeria and whose people were now dying of starvation and malnutrition. The images of starving children shocked me. Dark brown babies in dry, barren villages, their stomachs distended, their limbs rail thin. I remember thinking that the whole idea of how to help them seemed completely overwhelming. My heart ached for them, but I wasn’t Cesar Chavez. He was someone special. I could barely make it to lunch without “starving”.
In college I made friends with a group of students who were planning a service trip to Appalachia. As Easter break rolled around, we piled in vans for the long drive from Boston to West Virginia. I had never been to that part of the country and I was shocked by the poverty that we found there. People living in shacks without electricity and running water. Families without enough to eat. We spent the week doing manual labor; simple things like fixing drafty walls, insulating broken windows and visiting with shut-ins. We shared food and song and our youthful optimism.
When it was time to go to graduate school I opted for a year of service in Great Falls, Montana rather than an MFA in Chicago. I was being called to something I did not understand, heading down a path towards being something I did not yet have the words for.
This week I was talking to my social work students about social injustice and looking at examples from the world around us. As I put up slide after slide of images for discussion, I asked them “What can you do?” “What will you do?” After class, one of the students came to my office to ask me how I had become a social worker and I told her my story.
Today, all the way across the country in a school in south Boston, my youngest son and 240 other optimistic young men and women are starting their own year in service to the students in Boston. Working in the classrooms as tutors and mentors, they will bridge the education gap in high-poverty communities, increase graduation rates and change the lives of the students they serve. If things go as planned, they will see things they have never seen, learn things they cannot yet imagine, and walk towards something they may not yet have the words for.