Global Citizenship involves the ability to navigate across cultures, to communicate and work well with people of other faiths and political beliefs, to build coalitions and work in teams, to listen and engage broadly, to be empathetic, to use peace-building language, to lead from behind through adaptive challenges, to exercise both humility and initiative by crossing bridges where they already exist.
This post is a transcript of an address delivered by the author at the “Salt of the Earth” fundraising event for the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship on the campus of the University of Washington on March 30, 2014.
Salt of the Earth
Our theme this year is “salt of the earth”. Many of you will recognize this as a Biblical allusion. The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship is rooted in the tradition of ecumenical Christianity and this phrase, “salt of the earth” was used as a metaphor by Jesus during his sermon on the mount when he told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, it’s no good; it has to be thrown out.”
Why have we adopted this phrase as our theme tonight – apart from the fact that we have all this wonderful salt on the tables from one of our sponsors, Saltworks? We usually think of salt as having two practical properties: as a preserver and as a flavor enhancer. Salted meat doesn’t rot, and salted food? Yummy. Now, when you salt food, you don’t want it tasting like salt, you just want to bring out the best of the food’s flavor, right? And both of these properties – sustaining and enhancing – relate to service, which, when done well, helps empower a community to better sustain its own resources and cultural values. Done well, service comes alongside and accompanies a community as it engages its own development assets and relationships on a development pathway of its own choosing. Like well-salted food, in a well-served community, you don’t see and taste the volunteer so much; you see and taste the best of what is inherent in the community, but stronger and more salient.
The “Warrior Princess”
I recently read a disturbing story about a young American who spent a little time in Kenya. While there, she learned that there are no women Maasai warriors – that’s not part of their culture. The women are strong, to be sure, but the role of warrior is reserved for Maasai men, who spend three to seven years going through the rites of passage. Now, this young woman, looking at this through her own cultural lens decided that Maasai women needed to be empowered and that the Maasai culture needed to be challenged to see that women can be warriors too. And, simultaneously she concluded that it was entirely appropriate for her, a 20-something white girl from California with a few weeks’ experience with the Maasai, to take up this fight. So, she returns to the US, does some cross-training, gets sponsored by a sportswear company, and returns to Kenya on a quest to become the first female Maasai warrior and to provide a role model for all Maasai women to follow. She finds a few Maasai men willing to put her through a very abbreviated version of warrior training, returns to the US, writes a book called (I kid you not) “Warrior Princess”, gets featured in Glamour magazine, and does the talk show rounds. The response from Maasai woman in Kenya, who are “members of parliament, doctors, lawyers, professors, civil servants, teachers, nurses, business owners, etc.” was of course insult and distain.
Let’s call this an over-salted meal.
Now, how many of you have ever “liked” a cause on Facebook? … This “liking” of causes has actually helped give rise to a new phenomenon among young adults called “slacktivism”. It’s armchair activism. And the ironic finding of research is that the more people “like” a cause on Facebook, the less likely they are to do anything about it…because they feel that they’ve already contributed. Of course, what they have contributed to the real cause is exactly…nothing.
This is an under-salted meal.
Salt of the earth – how do we help young adults become salt of the earth in appropriate ways and measure? How do we help them engage and serve in meaningful ways that sustain and enhance the strengths that are already there in a community and in themselves? This is, in part, what the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship is about.
Do Something, but Do it with Competence
Lots of young people have the intention to do good, but are simply ill-equipped for it. They want to become the kind of adults that make a difference in the world, but they don’t have a map to get there. And so, they just set off in what seems like the right direction and start doing things. There is a very popular website called “Do Something” that sort of promotes this idea that doing something is always better than doing nothing. But this isn’t true.
Youth who lack humility and intercultural competence, who dive into service divorced from relational knowledge of a community, who bring with them a savior-complex, who don’t know to practice the breathing rhythm of action and reflection, who don’t have a mentoring community of support and challenge, who don’t know how to play nicely with people of other faiths – these can do real harm, both to the ones they intend to serve as well as to themselves.
When I was in college, I decided I wanted to do something about the homeless problem in Tacoma. I have no idea why I glommed onto that issue – I really don’t. But, I did, and I did it with typical college-boy zeal: I founded a new organization called Student Advocates For the Homeless (acronym: SAFH). I gave a few impassioned speeches, got students signed up – I even got the mayor of Tacoma to head my board of advisors. This, all before we had actually done anything at all with or for the homeless. Then one day, my dear friend Wake, who by the way serves on our Board, told me simply to stop. “What are you doing Aaron? And why are you doing it? Do you know anything about homeless people?” (I did not.) “Do you know what organizations already exist in Tacoma to serve this population and what they do?” (I did not) “Have you ever considered just volunteering a bit with one of them?” (I had not.) And with a shotgun blast of questions, he exploded my illusion that good intentions and a flurry of startup activity make for good service.
Ruined for Life
But, doing service well is only half of the story here. We’ve learned that doing service changes people. It rocks their world sometimes. It generates profound cognitive dissonance as they find their values shifted by the experience and they have difficultly integrating themselves back with their communities that didn’t share in that experience. They’ve changed, but their families, friends, and churches have not. The NW Jesuit Volunteers have a saying for this: “ruined for life”. (and believe it or not, they mean that in a good way.)
Service changes you, but how it changes you is up for grabs. I’ve seen people complete significant terms of service only to become disillusioned by the whole experience. They write it off as being young and naïve. They end up being less engaged, more cynical, less expansive in their embrace, their cultural stereotypes reinforced, their relationships strained, their faith shaken, the whole experience compartmentalized into their past.
From a Service Experience to a Life of Service Leadership
The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship works to increase the likelihood that a significant service experience will change a young person for the better, not the worse. It serves young adults in their 20’s who have chosen to “do something” in the form of committing themselves to at least one full year of service with a reputable service organization. We play a role that many volunteer placement organizations are not always able to do themselves: we walk with the volunteer throughout their time of service and well beyond as they figure out what it means for their lives and their faith. We help equip them with critical frameworks of thinking, key questions, and skills before they enter their term of service. We support and walk with them during their service term, and we help young volunteers integrate their service experience into a life beyond it and equip them to leverage these experiences into a lifelong ethic of service, civic engagement, and global understanding.
We do this through a colleague community, mentoring, training in adaptive leadership and intercultural competence, debriefing retreats and transition services. You’ll hear more about these programmatic activities from our staff in a moment. But our vision is broader than this. While we are honored and blessed to have worked directly with so many extraordinary young people over the past 15 years who are embracing the values and choices of global citizenship, we want to play a broader role to change the conversation about global citizenship and service ethics, and to change the practice of service volunteerism. So, we have begun working more directly with volunteer sending organizations and university service-learning programs to equip them to do more of this work themselves or to provide these services directly in a contractual arrangement, thus leveraging what we’ve learned to impact a much broader group of young service volunteers. We believe that a term of service, when rightly nurtured, becomes a life of service leadership. And it is our hope to see not just hundreds, but thousands of young volunteers experience just that.
Global Citizenship and 21st Century Soft Skills
In my day job at World Vision International, I’m developing a new project model called “Youth Ready”. As I’ve done this, I’ve been mindful of what both the business and academic community calls the “21st Century Skills Gap” and it has not been lost on me that many of the competencies they identify as missing in youth entering the workforce today are the very ones that the Krista Foundation mindfully develops in young service volunteers: the ability to navigate across cultures, to communicate and work well with people of other faiths and political beliefs, to build coalitions and work in teams, to listen and engage broadly, to be empathetic, to use peace-building language, to lead from behind through adaptive challenges, to exercise both humility and initiative by crossing bridges where they already exist.
I’ve built into this project model a purposeful emphasis on community engagement and service – believing that learning how to recognize and serve the greater good with reflection is one of the best ways to develop productive citizens and healthy communities. I’m also encouraging our local staff to adopt a leadership development style based on the same model the Krista Foundation uses. We don’t need more youth charging out ahead across the high hard ground crying ‘follow me!’, but rather those that will build coalitions, wield influence, lead from behind and serve the common cause of discovering a path forward together through the swamps of adaptive challenges.
In our world today, our businesses, our governments, our churches, our schools…our communities need active global citizens – people who have developed these critical competencies and leadership skills. It doesn’t just happen by accident. Too often global travel is conflated with global citizenship. That is such a poor shallow substitute. And it should never be assumed that an extended service experience will automatically equip someone with the attitudes and skills of a global citizen.
The Krista Foundation is at the forefront of learning – and now teaching others – how to transform a service experience into a life of service leadership with a lifelong ethic of service, civic engagement, and global understanding and how to shape and equip young adults into the kind of effective leaders in a global context that our world desperately needs.
I’d like to express again my gratitude to all those who helped make the evening a success, including our many generous sponsors, our dedicated staff and tireless volunteers. Of course, I’d also like to thank those of you who came out to support our work and a special thanks to those who chose to become or to remain a donor to the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship.