A few weeks ago, I was standing in my kitchen in Walla Walla, WA telling a friend how ready I was to be done with college and moving on to my service program. “After four years of liberal arts academia, I can’t wait to start contributing to society,” I said. “I can’t wait to start actually helping people.”
He shook his head and said, “You already helped me.”
“No,” I began, “I mean people who really need it.”
“I needed it,” he replied.
Okay, he had me beat. Too often, we seem to get caught up in the massive conflicts and issues that surround us, and we forget the capability that each of us has to build community wherever we are. As much as I am craving radical change to our economic systems, our cities, our treatment of people who are different from us—I also need to own up to the small victories that I’ve been part of over the years.
But before I can celebrate small successes, I should talk about a lesson I learned this year and that is, to set realistic goals. Back in September, I had sky-high hopes for building community. I wanted to improve the tense relationship between students at my college (Whitman) and residents of my college town (Walla Walla). Part of the tension naturally comes from our differences. The majority of Whitman students are white, liberal, and wealthy, or at least two out of the three. Meanwhile, Walla Walla residents are more small-town conservative, with a blend of both rich winery folk (we grow a lot of grapes out here) and lower income farm workers, many of whom are Hispanic. While students and Walla Walla residents engage with one another through volunteer work and the occasional off-campus job, the relationship between these two groups is fraught with conflict and prejudice. (My college newspaper put together an outstanding special issue that focused on campus-town relations and I urge you to check out some of those articles.)
I wanted to bring students and residents together in a meaningful fashion to break down the boundaries that divide us. I contemplated a city-wide monthly meeting to jointly address issues. I thought about a media campaign to combat stereotypes. I considered making a documentary to collaboratively share the perspectives of students and residents. However, I ultimately discarded each of these ideas because they felt too large to take on, especially when I didn’t have anyone committed to working with me on the project. In the end, I recognized that my desire to build radical community between a town of 30,000 residents and 1,500 college students was a bit misplaced. That sort of action can’t happen in a few months. It’s certainly a vital mission and I hope that I can return for my ten-year college reunion to see distinct improvements in the relationship between Walla Walla residents and Whitman students. But I also realize that my own fixation on revolutionary change prevented me from noticing the difference I could more tangibly make given my surroundings and my circumstances.
So, in addition to the lesson I learned about setting realistic goals, most importantly I learned the value of building community right where we are. Looking back on my time at Whitman, I see that I did help lead a movement towards diversity, openness and enthusiasm in my community. And it all started with a simple act. Positioned at a table outside the library before final exams my freshman year, a few friends and I asked our peers to write down what faith or spirituality meant to them and to hang it on a nearby tree. In exchange, we gave them ice cream sandwiches. We’ve been doing it every May since—although we’ve upgraded to Klondike bars.
Last week, while I sat at the ice cream table next to two of my best friends and co-interns from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, I felt the full impact of what our office has accomplished in four years. We’ve grown from one intern to five interns with diverse religious backgrounds. We’ve brought top-notch speakers to educate and spark conversation among our peers. We’ve broadened our presence on campus and offered support during times of tragedy. Most importantly, we’ve begun to transform Whitman from a place where students felt afraid to discuss their religious beliefs to a place where students are invited into interreligious dialogue and action.
I’m not writing here because I want to glorify the successes that I’ve been honored to be part of—and indeed, the glory should go to our Director of Religious Spiritual and Life along with the many other phenomenal students who have tirelessly contributed to this movement. Rather, I want to point out that the possibility for community-building is usually right in front of us.
One of the most frustrating things I witness in my day-to-day life is the apathy and pessimism of individuals who—when confronted with injustice or tragedy—simply walk away and say that there is nothing they can do about it. I took a class about global economic inequalities this semester and I heard that sort of reaction almost every day. However, until the progressive members of my generation have the chance to take on high-power political, corporate and nonprofit jobs, we are going to have to dedicate ourselves to grassroots advocacy and activism—even in the smallest actions. I saw that this year in friends sharing meals with one another, in individuals offering support when their peers were struggling, in students who sought friendships outside of the campus bubble, people—in short—who said yes to the opportunities in front of them.
I’m moving to Harlem, New York in August to immerse myself in social justice and work full time for a nonprofit. I’m completely ready to be done with academia, to be in this new place, and to more comprehensively use my skills to serve others. And yet, I would be mistaken if I left college thinking I hadn’t been a part of any community-building or activism during my time there. I wish I had done more—but for now, I want to appreciate my peers who take the small steps toward improving the lives of those around them. Moreover, I want to encourage everyone to look for opportunities to positively impact the communities they are part of. No action is too small to matter.