This summer, I spent my time doing what any kind-hearted white liberal elitist would do: volunteering in a socioeconomically challenged minority community. Now, I could talk about how rewarding it was, or how humbled it made me feel, but although I was both rewarded and humbled by the experience, I feel that those two words fail to capture my work in its entirety.
The organization that I sought to help was Bridge the Gap College Prep, a nonprofit that assists Marin City students in their quest to graduate college. The specific program I participated in was designed to get preschool and elementary school kids to improve their reading skills. Basically, the volunteers would show up and read with one or two of the kids over the span of about three hours. The program was three days a week, for five weeks.
In total honesty, I thought I was a little bit ballsy just for going into Marin City and was looking forward to awkwardly inserting it into conversations, as if that would fool anyone into thinking that I was some kind of hardened Mill Valley kid. Believe me, I now realize how incredibly delusional that was. I actually had an ego trip when a black guy in the parking lot gave me the head nod. And to make matters worse, I was internally keeping score of my own morality, with the assumption that volunteering would drastically improve my character. For a while, I felt like Mother Teresa, just because I was there. This too was a flaw in my thinking that I eventually realized was grossly misguided.
Although my embarrassing ignorance was the most significant obstacle that I had to overcome, there were other challenging aspects of volunteering. Every day I read with a 10-year-old, whom I’ll refer to as Colin. What made this challenging was that Colin was virtually illiterate. I tried to engage him with certain books and reading activities, but evidently I wasn’t a very good teacher, because he kept getting frustrated to the to the point of tears, slamming the book shut, and turning his back on me. I went into Marin City hoping to change the world, and it soon became clear that I may not even be able to help one kid. I felt defeated and useless, and even questioned the value of my attendance. These feelings persisted until I realized that I could help Colin, even if I couldn’t correct his illiteracy. What really mattered was that I was there for him, no matter how insignificant my presence seemed to be.
I wasn’t able to do everything for Colin, but I think I had a positive impact on his summer, and he certainly had a substantial impact on me. For all of my leftist idealism, I had failed to gain an understanding of race, class, and education on a personal level. For the most part, my understanding of the systemic oppression of African Americans extended only as far as what I read and discussed with other people within my own demographic. Standing face to face with a black elementary schooler from Marin City was a whole new dynamic. Right off the bat, it became apparent that I had unintentionally made sweeping generalizations about a large group of people that I had thought I was fighting for on the front line. Colin was neither a casualty nor a statistic. He was a person. He was a 10-year-old. He wanted to look at the Star Wars Encyclopedia, and draw crazy pictures with colored pencils, and run around the playground. My mission to relate with his “struggle” hampered my ability to relate with him at all. In order to actually learn something, I had to put all of my preconceived notions about race and class aside.
Thanks to Colin, I was able to slightly overcome some of my own selfishness and self-importance. I stopped righteously acting like it was my duty to get Colin to read, I stopped pretending that I completely understood the complex problems in the American racial and socioeconomic system, and I was able to form genuine connections with people that I usually wouldn’t, because I’m white or because my family is wealthy or whatnot. The perceived superiority that I felt on my first day was largely diminished by my last day. As the barriers of my elitism were broken down, I actually enjoyed the experience more than anything else. I loved spending time with Colin, I loved beating elementary school kids at games of pickup basketball during break, and I loved doing something over the summer that I really cared about, as opposed to what I usually do: sleep until noon and play NBA 2k14.
From volunteering, I was able to understand that there are two parts to every complex issue: facts and people. To fully comprehend any given topic, it’s important to grasp both of these dynamics, and to understand how they relate to each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned this summer is that I don’t know much.