Still here! I think I have a long post coming about the trashing of women’s lit as a questionable hipster hobby that I have admittedly participated in.

In the meantime, I’ve been pursuing some Americorps positions and thought I would share my “Motivational Statement.” The prompt asked for a specific experience that drew me to community service, and after great struggle I wrote this. Note, I intentionally simplified my discussion of street newspapers, especially glossy charity productions like The Big Issue, for the purposes of this 3000-character essay. They aren’t perfect: the equation of homelessness with panhandling on one hand, the emphasis on “honest work” and pulling-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps as antidote to poverty on the other. Nevertheless, I loved the ritual of buying The Big Issue while I was in the UK, and I hope that participation in the program was helpful to at least some of the people selling it.

 

From a young age I have been mindful of inequality and suffering in the communities I’ve lived in, but much of my thinking about community service was negative without my realizing it. It took traveling to another country to give me a positive framework in which to understand community service.

When I say that my thinking was negative, I don’t mean I thought helping people was bad or unnecessary. It was simply a grim business, the statistics of human suffering and environmental depletion unnerving. Community service meant facing overwhelming social problems and, often as not, assuaging guilt about my own relative privilege. Negative thinking motivated me to help people, but it felt somehow joyless.

Then, after graduating college, I spent six months in England on a student work visa and encountered street newspapers. I’d seen people selling them in New York City, but there they were an oddity. In the UK, street newspapers are a public institution. Most cities I visited had at least one person shouting, “Get the Big Issue!” – a glossy weekly magazine sold by people who are homeless or in insecure housing situations.

Homelessness is an emotionally fraught topic in the United States, and the same is certainly true in the UK, where panhandling is often illegal. But The Big Issue cut through negative feelings about homelessness and created a positive interaction between the magazine’s sellers and purchasers. Each week, I could stop on the Exeter High Street and buy The Big Issue from a neighbor who was working to find stability in his or her life. It was a chance to help financially, but also an opportunity to say hello, exchange a few words, and acknowledge a person who, back in the United States, would be socially invisible due to their housing situation.

The Big Issue transformed the way I see community service. I’m compelled by the idea of community service as a visible, ubiquitous institution, as obvious as driving to the grocery store or walking your dog in the park. Community service can create neighborly connections between people who have been conditioned to ignore one another; it can build authentic communities where people help one another. All of the negatives – obligation, guilt, the belief that problems are too big to be tackled – only serve to paralyze us into inaction.

I’d like to contribute to community projects that create value and human connections, and in the long term, I’d like to use my educational background in library science to work in public libraries, the ultimate institution for fostering community and meaning. In my community endeavors, I expect to face painful and difficult work and problems that aren’t easily solved, but I’m inspired by the memory of my weekly Big Issue purchase and the idea that sometimes, community service just plain works.

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