Come to the Table

Values for the Community Service Volunteer

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This abridged article highlights only two of the five "Tables." The entire article is available at or in The Global Citizen vol 3. It is based on a keynote address given by the author at the annual conference of the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, May 28, 2006.

Sarah, a recent college graduate from Minnesota, lives in downtown Los Angeles as a Salesian volunteer working with the children of homeless women. Randy uses his Columbia University engineering degree to help design community centers, water projects, orphanages, and medical clinics in the Middle East with Engineering Ministries International. Katie is studying for an advanced degree in Ecology after serving for two years at a homeless shelter with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Jay shares his gifts as an urban musician by facilitating a partnership with a local music production company and a Presbyterian church in Tacoma, Washington to create a music development program for inner-city youth.

Each of these young adults shares a commitment to engage the world through service. They have chosen to share in and contribute to the social, economic, and spiritual development of a specific community of people. That they each made such commitments demonstrates that there are likely some shared values between them. Living out such commitments, however, is likely to transform them, pushing them further toward a common set of values or ethic: the ethic of service, civic engagement, and global understanding. In a word, it is the ethic of the global citizen. While the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship believes that service commitments are a powerful influence toward this ethic, we recognize that they are not the only things that lead people to develop into global citizens. However, this article attempts to articulate some critical components of this ethic from the angle or perspective of service. Alongside this essay appears "Staying for Tea: Five Principles for the Community Service Volunteer," a piece I wrote a few years before. In some ways, this is a companion piece to that article: while that essay deals with principles, this essay addresses values. It may be helpful to differentiate then what I mean by these two words. I don't pretend to offer authoritative definitions, but rather to clarify the distinction within these two articles.

A principle guides how we express our values in the world. It is a general rule of behavior that, if kept, will by and large keep us aligned with our values. A value, on the other hand, is something to which we steadfastly assign higher-order worth. By "higher-order" I mean that if you were to group everything that is of worth to you into sets, your values would be in that first set that you'd hang onto even if it meant foregoing something from a lower set. When trade-offs are forced between things that have worth to you, the result is generally clarification about your values. Both are critical to identify and remain aware of as we go about making the myriad choices we face each day, both large and trivial.1

It is not enough to have one without the other. I might say, "I value community," yet have no idea how it impacts my day-to-day decisions. So, we develop principles like "Staying for Tea" that guide our behavior as we attempt to live out our values.2 My hope is that the following article engenders better thinking about what values we bring with us and desire to express in the communities we serve. The things of worth we put into that higher order are not part of an immutable set. We choose our values. We think about them and make preferential choices regarding the set of values to which we compose principles. The metaphor of invitation to a table is meant to allow you to add our own meanings along the way, as you consider the relevance of each to your own journey into global citizenship. The five tables are: The Communion Table: Mutuality, The Negotiation Table: Influence, The Study Table: Competence, The Operating Table: Humility, and The ‘Hearthing' Table: Celebration. In this abridged version I discuss two of these tables.

The Negotiation Table: Influence

You are invited to the negotiation table, where strategies are developed, decisions made, deals brokered, policies written, and resources deployed. What matters at this table is influence. Your service in the world may take you to those without power or influence, but I hope that, for some of you, it also takes you to those with all the power and influence. There are systems, structures, and laws that need to be changed. There are policies, movements, and nations that need advocates, organizers, and leaders who understand and value the importance of influence. We can look to men and women like former UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld, Nelson Mandela, and Wangari Maathai of the Green Movement in Africa as models of how it can be done at the highest levels.

The obstacle for most young adults I know is that there is a difference between valuing influence and having it. Although not many young adults have the credibility or credentials to have much influence, there is a growing body of evidence that those who travel and engage in service gain more influence than those who don't.

James Hunt has been doing some research in this area. American leaders as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Jane Addams, were transformed by experiences of travel and service as young adults.3 Hunt found that each leader gained perspective, adaptability, and credibility through service that helped launch them into and guide them through vital leadership roles. A longitudinal study of service in AmeriCorps has also found evidence of significant long-term impacts on the type of civic engagement that we associate with social capital and healthy democratic governance. Years after returning from their service assignments, volunteers are acutely aware of their own communities' needs, have a stronger sense of civic obligation, and are more engaged in public activities.4 These studies support our claim that young adults like the ones the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship support become better citizens and leaders as a result of their engaging the world through service.

About nine years ago, Krista Colleague Kayla served with AmeriCorps as a "Violence Prevention Coordinator" at an inner-city middle school in Seattle. Here she gained firsthand experience at the negotiation table, advocating for the rights of her students in an underfunded district where peer to peer violence and lack of basic school supplies, such as paper for the copy machine, were frequent. Kayla then drew on lessons learned from this experience to train students to become their own advocates by helping institute a "peer helper" program that trained students to mediate conflicts between their peers and between themselves. This included launching a leadership and empowerment program for female students called "SASS" that trained young women to articulate their own needs and boundaries throughout life.

Today, Kayla formally occupies a space at the negotiation table at a university in the Southwest where she is a doctoral student and an instructor. After learning that only 20% of female graduate students who have children succeed in obtaining tenure-track positions down the road, she helped organize a Graduate Women's Organization that lobbies the administration for family-friendly policies on campus. Kayla recently oversaw the institution of the university's first-ever parental leave policy and non-discrimination policy for graduate students.

Clearly, I'm not just saying that volunteers tend to vote more later in life, although that's probably true; I'm talking about a fundamental shift in attitudes and values that shapes them as citizens and leaders in a way that benefits society as a whole. When young adults commit to a sustained period of service, not only are they more likely to develop a global citizen ethic, their voice is also likely to gain the credibility needed for influence. Some young adults disparage it as if influence involved "selling out to The Man." A couple of people actually accused me of this when I told them I attended Harvard University and was considering a position at the World Bank because I wished to take a seat at the table on behalf of those marginalized and without voice.

Valuing influence is not selling out; it is recognizing that relevance is better than self-righteousness. People's willingness to engage society and to leverage their credibility and influence is at the root of nearly all social change.

Service volunteerism is not a mere holding pattern for young adults unsure of what they want to do next, a one-off activity you do in your idealistic days before you have to live in the "real" world, with "real" responsibilities and with a "real" job. Can you think of work more rooted in reality than accompanying children with AIDS as they pass from life to death? Is there anything not real about helping a rural community establish its first library, about facilitating dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, about training indigenous nurses in Indonesia, or about helping disabled adults live in community with dignity? These are real examples of real work being done by Krista Colleagues. This is not a holding pattern, but rather a launch pad into a life that engages society's most pressing realities in ways that are critically needed.

The Study Table: Competence

Sometimes the best expression of an ethic of service is to remove yourself from the action for awhile and invest in your own capacity to serve. We also invite you to the study table to hone your skills, knowledge, and attitudes, and to learn from others who share this table with you. If you wish to take a seat at the negotiation table, one of the surest ways to build the necessary credibility is to be competent in what you do. Now, I'm not saying that you need a Masters degree or even a college education to serve others effectively, but my own experience tells me that I'm less effective when I'm uninformed. When I don't know the relevant theories, what has been tried before by others, what the practical steps are to efficiently accomplish what I want to achieve, or even how to frame the right questions about the matter, I'm less effective. The study table may be at a formal institution, or it may be in your hammock. It's just a metaphor for balancing action with contemplation and learning.

Few things are sadder to me than watching the explosion of frustration that results when young adults are passionate about some social issue, yet impotent in their ignorance and lack of credentials. Unable to engage the nexus of conversation in the appropriate language, they instead throw stones and scream slogans, both of which usually miss meaningful targets. Marginalized and inarticulate, they throw ineffectual tantrums that further strip their voice of credibility.

I was recently invited to a dinner with a group of young social activists in Bolivia. A couple of them were militant anti-globalization protesters. I found their passion stimulating and wanted to really engage them on the issue. But as we continued to speak, I got the sense that their emotion was not backed up with any real knowledge. I asked them if they had any training in international finance, economics, or trade policy. They didn't. How about business, international relations, information technology, or migration? None. I asked them if they had at least read any books about globalization. One had read an article and another, an excerpt from a chapter in Joseph Stiglitz's book.5 I was suddenly and totally uninterested in their opinions about globalization.

Effective passion is not about spikes in blood pressure and raised voices, it's about being concerned enough to sustain your efforts to be a relevant actor. Wakefield Gregg, a Charter Krista Colleague from the class of 1999, once said that "passion is perfected in discipline." It's about caring enough to consider that you might cause harm if you storm in unprepared. It's about strengthening your voice so that you can be an effective advocate, deepening your knowledge so you can be a nontrivial player, and sharpening your skill so you can be a builder of capacity in others.

If you launch into community development, or environmental activism, or peacemaking, or any of the other important activities this foundation supports without investing in your own preparation, you reinforce the subtle condescending view that these activities don't constitute real work that require real skills, professionalism, intelligence, or competence. You tacitly underline the idea that the people you serve don't deserve the best that you or the world has to offer. You reveal your own prejudice that service is more about good intentions than effectiveness. Good intentions aren't worth much if they bring harm to the people you intend to serve. One particular example comes to mind.

There are millions of child laborers around the world working in scores of industry and service sectors. The idea that we could save them by simply boycotting a few of the products manufactured using child labor is a tempting one. In fact, at any given time one can find dozens of ongoing child-labor related boycotts against corporations like Nike, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, and specific trade goods like Chinese fireworks, Indian carpets, and Pakistani soccer balls. A quick Google of "child labor boycott" provides ample evidence of how popular the boycott is. Activist teachers turn boycotts into school projects, activist churches turn boycotts into missions, and activist politicians turn boycotts into campaign issues and bills.

The intentions are good; the problem lies with the outcomes. Few people ever follow up to gauge the actual boycotts' long-term impact on child welfare. Most base their actions on the unexamined assumption that if they force the closure or relocation of a factory that employs children, child welfare will improve. Thus, they measure success in terms of pain inflicted on the offending companies and changes in their behavior. However, there are some good studies that do follow up on the impact of boycotts on the formerly employed children, and the evidence does not offer much support to these assumptions. In truth, boycotts sometimes result in a decline in child welfare, not an improvement.

When factories close, the underlying preferences and incentives that brought the children into that factory in the first place don't just disappear. Parents don't suddenly decide that they can afford to send their son or daughter to school now that the factory is closed. The children don't suddenly realize the long-term value of pursuing an education. Governments don't suddenly make policies that obviate the needs of these families. Children who end up laid-off as a result of a boycott often end up moving into more dangerous and lower paid work like stone crushing, fireworks manufacturing, street hustling, and prostitution. Boycotts can lead to a decline in wages paid to child laborers and, paradoxically, even an increase in child labor.6

Clearly I'm not advocating child labor, nor am I saying that boycotts of abusive businesses can never improve child welfare. The point is that assumptions about what will happen when you take an action need to be examined carefully. The world is complex and we can't always predict how economic and social structures will respond to interventions. This shouldn't paralyze us, but if we really care about the people we wish to serve, it is good to value competence. Make sure you are actually affecting the intended change without creating unintended counter-directional change. When you come to the study table, you intentionally take time to think before you act, observe as you do, and reflect on what you've done.
Whatever your service assignment or vocation, take it seriously. Just because you are a volunteer or do social work or are employed by a faith-based non-profit organization, you are not excused from being professional and well-informed, from being held accountable for both your process and results, from having more than good intentions expected of you by those whom you serve. Subscribe to the pertinent journals, read the relevant literature, attend a conference, find a mentor, go to graduate school, whatever. Get engaged, value competence, be relevant, and do no harm.

The Dessert Table

My invitation to these tables is an invitation to define the framework of values that will empower you to live out a life-long ethic of service, civic engagement, and global understanding. My Christian perspective and focus on service clearly shape the values that I chose, but I leave the question open for you: what perspectives and focus will you bring? My intention is to promote without apology a concept of global citizenship rooted in values like these. What I define as mutuality, influence, competence, humility, and celebration, you may define as community, advocacy, learning, change, and wonder. The five tables presented here are intended to frame a values space at once capacious and sparse for defining the ethic of global citizenship.

You are invited here with some earnestness. I invite you so that our world might change, so that God's goodness might be expressed in you and through you as you serve the world with gladness. From Camden to Cameroon, the world needs those that would embrace an ethic of global citizenship. Whether you're in the slums or in a boardroom, in the field or taking exams, step forward grounded in the values that will help make you a global citizen.


Curriculum Questions

1. Have you had an experience through service or elsewhere that has changed your own notion of what Ausland calls, the "Negotiation Table?" What new voices or experiences might you consider when making daily decisions at work, school, or home? How has your personal worldview changed?

2. At the "Study Table," what skills do you hope to acquire or hone that might make you a more effective servant of others? Ausland suggests, "Sometimes the best expression of an ethic of service is to remove yourself from the action for a while and invest in your own capacity to serve." At what points have you chosen to "remove yourself from the action" and to what end? List the various emotions that might accompany such a decision (relief, guilt, confusion, ambivalence...).

3. Ausland concludes this section by urging readers to go beyond good intentions: "Whatever your service assignment or vocation, take it seriously." In your current context, what are you doing, or hoping to do, to take your work seriously?

A reprintable PDF of this article is available only to subscribers.

Aaron Ausland is a member of the 1999 Charter Class of Krista Colleagues and the founding editor of this journal. He also serves on the Krista Foundation Board of Directors. He has a Masters degree in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has worked for a number of non-profit development organizations including MCC, World Concern, Agros International, Trickle Up, and World Vision International where he serves as Associate Director of Independent Research and Evaluation. Aaron and his wife Gabriela currently live in Bogotá, Colombia with their four-year-old son Thiago and baby girl Ava.

All articles © 2018 by The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship.
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