Sometimes people ask me why I feel so called to service, why I feel passionately about giving back, particularly in the areas of education and poverty. Why do I spend time in the South Bronx and East Harlem? Here is the answer in cold, hard data: a study was recently done on the student population of the top 146 countries in the U.S. Over 70% come from the wealthiest 25% of families. Only 3% come from the poorest 25% of families. That's me, down there in the latter group. I went to a top university not once, but twice, and I may be on my way to a third if I'm lucky. I beat the odds, big time.
I learned about this study through Michael Sandel's weekly lecture on Justice. It hit me like a ton of bricks. 3%? Really? My mother always told me I was special, but stats like that don't make me feel special. They make me sad and angry and frustrated. And I've learned that sadness, anger, and frustration are great motivators for change if we harness them properly. That's what I do in my community service - I'm harnessing those feelings and using them to turn around the very situation that made me feel those feelings in the first place. It's my attempt at leveling the playing field.
In this week's Justice class, Sandel talks about the distribution of wealth, a favorite topic of mine and one that I think about every day of my ridiculously blessed life. I constantly wrestle with feelings of pride in my accomplishments, guilt over my lifestyle (which is modest, but good), and the obligation I have to help others who live in the same type of situation I faced as a child. I firmly stand behind the belief that those of great fortune must take on great responsibility.
Shutting ourselves up in our little homes tucked away in safe little neighborhoods is a recipe for disaster. Tom Friedman famously said "if you don't visit the bad neighborhoods, the bad neighborhoods will visit you." (Ironically, or not, Tom Friedman and his wife Ann, are two of the largest donors that make Michael Sandel's free online class possible.) I hold that thought at the front of my mind as much as possible.
Friedman is very clearly stating that the ability to choose our involvement with people who need our help is not a choice at all. We choose by our action or by our failure to act - the choice between these two options effects whether or not our worlds collide in a positive or negative event. There is no way to our worlds from mingling. By being involved, we have the opportunity to make the collision a positive one. The alternative shows up in our prisons and on the sad headlines of papers and news programs across this country.
What keeps me going most of all in my service work is knowing that there were a lot of people who gave of themselves so I could have the education and opportunity I had at Penn and at UVA. There were policy makers and elected officials who fought for my access to student loans at affordable rates. There were donors who made gifts to these universities so that I could be granted financial aid and top quality resources. There were teachers and mentors and staff members who made it the work of their lives to help students get the very best education possible so long as they were willing to work hard.
A lot of people gave an awful lot of themselves to help total strangers like me - I'll never meet them all; I'll never even know all of their names. And still I owe them a huge amount of gratitude. I show that gratitude by paying it forward to others, and I hope the people I help will be willing and able to pay it forward, too. It's the only way we're going to make this world a better place for everyone. We've got to come together; we've got to show up for one another.
The image above is not my own. It can be found here.