Draw the Circle Wide
Building a better world together through service learning.
by Caitlin Sweetlamb
Director of Service Learning
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
I am deeply inspired by this vision of service expressed by Aboriginal artist, activist, and scholar Lilla Watson. Embracing the notion of interdependence allows us to step back and see how all species are living and breathing alongside one another as part of one vast, complex system. We can begin to dissolve that boundary we put up between "self" and "other" and start to expand the circle of community so widely that there is actually no "other" left.
We strive for our students to focus on forming a life, not just building a resume. We want them to reflect on the important role that each of us plays in contributing to a more just and liberated world. We believe that service to others is key to one's own wholeness and well-being, and we approach service learning from the standpoint of interdependence and mutual interest.
In his famous Christmas sermon of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that service really boils down to this. "All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality."
We are all receivers and we are all givers! There's a difference between doing for a community and doing with a community. Ideally, we want to co-create a world where everyone can self-determine and ask for what they need, and also offer what they have to give. Perhaps those of us who have more than enough of what we need can redistribute some of those resources to ensure a healthier and safer environment for all of us to coexist within. We believe that a world in which everyone is fed, clothed, sheltered, and has their basic needs met is actually a more peaceful world for all of us.
Leaders and teachers throughout human history, like Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK Jr., have shown us how to love as an action, rather than just a feeling, an idea, or a state of being. Love is something we DO! Dr. Cornel West puts it this way: "Justice is what love looks like in public." One of our most important charges as an Episcopal School is to strive for justice and peace among all people. We live in a world where many people are struggling to get their needs met. Many people experience huge obstacles on their path (their climb up) toward self-actualization.
If we want to walk a path of serving others in ways that are sustained, meaningful, and transformational, we need to use two types of service: 1) charitable works and 2) social action. Like your two feet, these two approaches work together to create momentum. We step with our "charitable works foot" when we engage in direct service projects to help others meet their immediate needs (e.g. donating canned goods to a local food bank). We step with our "social action foot" when we work to address the root causes of problems facing our communities in Austin and around the world (e.g. championing public policies that alleviate food insecurity). Addressing root causes can take a long time, so we need to use BOTH our feet at the same time!
Trinity community members have opportunities every year for charitable works, also called "direct service." This includes face-to-face interactions and relationship-building with people, or sometimes animals or the environment, who have immediate unmet needs. We will also continue to educate ourselves on laws and policies that negatively affect vulnerable people in our community and ways we can take action. Trinity collaborates with amazing organizations that are committed to improving our communities and respecting the dignity of every human being. They work on immediate needs and advocate for holistic, long-term solutions to complex social problems like income inequality, climate change, food insecurity, lack of access to universal healthcare, and identity-based violence.
Start with yourself. Understand your own unique story, your identities, your concerns, your passions, your own gifts and resources, and more. Over time, my hope is that we shift from a focus on logging hours to reflecting on the outcomes of our service, both for the people we are serving and for ourselves.