Doing vs. Being of Service

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What does it mean to serve, to be of service to others? What does it mean to choose the role of the servant? How does the concept of ‘service’ translate to who we are and how we decide to ‘be’ in this world?

I remember in my junior year in high school I was considering running for an Associated Student Body (ASB) position. I knew I didn’t want to be President and I wasn’t interested in Treasurer either. Vice President and Secretary appealed to me and both were positions I thought I would do well in. My high school, an all-girls Catholic school, also had another position available. This position was ASB Service. Of all the positions, I wanted this one the least, not because I thought I couldn’t handle the responsibilities and not because I wasn’t well qualified (I had consciously been involved in service in different ways throughout my high school career). It was because I didn’t want to be known and seen as “the Service person.” What made matters worse for me was that almost every teacher and dozens of my peers told me I should run for Service, that I would be “so good at it.” Deep down, I knew they were right. I knew that I could help organize and lead retreats, plan specific service-related events on campus and within the community, and, overall, provide strong leadership and mentoring for other students, particularly freshmen and sophomores.

Even though I knew I would be excellent in this position based on feedback I had received over freshmen, sophomore, and junior years from teachers and peers about my service work, I resisted submitting my name for nomination. I actually filled out the nomination sheet for Secretary and was going to announce my decision when I heard that one of my good friends had already submitted her name for Secretary. In fact, many of my friends submitted their names for all the positions except for ASB Service. I found out that they were saving the spot for me (!). Their action was both infuriating and thoughtful. Knowing that my friends and fellow peers deliberately did not submit their names for Service because they thought I was a shoe-in, made me feel a responsibility to not let them down. I submitted my name for nomination and was voted in easily.

In retrospect, at age 17, I believe I was coming to terms with the humility of service. What made me so uncomfortable choosing to run for ASB Service was a deep sense that I wasn’t doing enough. True service to me, even as an adolescent and young adult, meant that I needed to do much more. My experiences felt too easy. For example, going to a pre-school and working with young children one-on-one or in small groups as part of my service hours didn’t feel like service. Even though I enjoyed being and playing with small children, this experience was just another assignment I needed to complete. Whether I was in the classroom or not, I felt like my presence didn’t make a huge difference on the children’s overall growth and learning. I was just another high school student or volunteer dropping in, getting her ‘service’ criteria satisfied, and driving away with all the necessary signatures to demonstrate my ‘involvement.’

Service as a mindset and philosophy meant something to me. Maybe it was being exposed to catechism that included in-depth case studies of specific saints and martyrs. If I wasn’t feeling fully connected to the acts of ‘goodness’ or ‘kindness’ I was enacting or if I wasn’t feeling some degree of sacrifice, then, in my young adult mind, I wasn’t doing my part. Not doing my part was exasperated by being known as “the Service person” on campus. Though my peers and teachers valued my service-related work, especially my shared written personal narratives about spirituality I wrote as part of my service leadership during retreats, I felt like an imposter. I realized that doing service was a far cry from being of service.

Being of service, I understood to a limited degree, at age 17, was a way of life, a choice to live every moment acknowledging Self but making decisions to be of service to others. Doing service, in contrast, could be measured quantifiably through external acts that others deemed ‘good’ or ‘kind.’ Even at 17, I cringed at the notion that people held a stick up to me and measured me as the ‘good kind of service.’ They didn’t know what I was feeling inside. They didn’t have a clue if I was ‘being’ rather than just doing obligatory service. All they could see – as they checked the boxes or signed the papers – were all the external, seemingly meaningful ‘acts’ in which I was involved. The more hours the better. The more ‘impact’ – as measured by how many people I served lunch to – fantastic!

Fast-forward decades later, and I find myself thinking of ‘service’ as an Assistant Professor who is creating courses that are community-engaged. I am actually structuring one course as a critical service-learning course. Critical, in this case, means centering social justice at the core of pedagogy and its enactment or praxis (Mitchell, 2007; 2008; 2014). Service-learning refers to the structure through which a higher education course intentionally centers ‘service’ as “mutually identified and organized service activities that benefit the community and [assist students in] gain[ing] further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility” (Bringle & Clayton, 2012, p. 105).

What strikes me in this reflection, is how similar I feel to how I did as a 17-year-old, when I ask myself and my critically-minded colleagues if we are actually BEING OF service to the communities we collaborate and work with through our community-engaged work or if we (my colleagues, our students, and I) are only DOING service. In higher education courses, where does merely doing service end and being of service begin? And in semester-long courses that are based on extrinsic motivators (grades, recognition), is it even possible to go beyond only doing service?

For me, the answer lies in the internal shifts that occur within each individual. As a whole,  most likely, the majority of my students – when engaging with community members – may only be doing service, regardless of what they write in their journal reflections or say in their final project presentations. Doing service means getting the good grade and being able to say that they ‘know about real issues.’ Being of service, for the few who truly get it, means that their experience and interaction with community members deeply shifts their understandings of who they are in relation to others with whom they are speaking, communicating, and interacting. Being of service means that the external ‘doing’ of service has translated to a knowing. This knowing is the realization that service is not an action divorced from the heart. Service, in its purest form, is being in, coming from, and sharing the heart for the purpose of caring for, listening to, and being there for another without conditions.

Service is akin to Rachel Naomi Remen’s (2000) discussion on ‘charity’ or “ways of giving to others” (p. 86). She tells the story of an Orthodox rabbi who provided her with clarity around these ‘ways’ through different levels of understanding unconditional giving:

  • At the eighth and most basic level of giving to others, a man begrudgingly buys a coat for a shivering man who has asked him for help, gives it to him in the presence of witnesses, and waits to be thanked.
  • At the seventh level, a man does this same thing without waiting to be asked for help.
  • At the sixth level, a man does this same thing openheartedly without waiting to be asked for help.
  • At the fifth level, a man openheartedly gives a coat that he has bought to another but does so in private.
  • At the fourth level, a man openheartedly and privately gives his own coat to another, rather than a coat that he has bought.
  • At the third level, a man openheartedly gives his own coat to another who does not know who has given him this gift. But the man himself knows the person who is indebted to him.
  • At the second level, he openheartedly gives his own coat to another and has no idea who has received it. But the man who receives it knows to whom he is indebted.
  • And finally, on the first and purest level of giving to others, a man openheartedly gives his own coat away without knowing who will receive it, and he who receives it does not know who has given it to him. Then giving becomes a natural expression of the goodness in us, and we give as simply as flowers breathe out their perfume (pp. 86 – 87).

In the final iteration of ‘ways of giving to another’ we become servants of humanity. We recognize the divinity each of us carries within, in spite of outward appearance or perceived difference.

As educators, I am interested in how we can use these understandings of service to inform our being-ness as we interact with our students, community members, and other stakeholders. To what degree are we willing to be of service and in what areas do we find ourselves only doing service either ‘begrudgingly’ or for the sake of being acknowledged or recognized? Where do we begin, in our own work, to help our students shift from merely doing service to becoming servants to society, to humanity?

These are questions I hope we all ponder seriously as we (re)imagine and (re)conceptualize a world in which we are committed to serving humanity – our children, our communities, and our planet.

With much love,

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References

Bringle, R. G., & Clayton, P. H. (2012). Civic education through service-learning: What, how, and why? In L. McIlrath, A. Lyons, & R. Munck (Eds.), Higher education and civic engagement: Comparative perspectives (pp. 101 – 124). New York: Palgrave.

Mitchell, T. D. (2007). Critical Service-Learning as social justice education: A case study of the citizen scholars program. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40(2), 101 – 112.

Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 50 – 65.

Mitchell, T. D. (2014). How service-learning enacts social justice sensemaking. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 2(2), Article 6, 1 – 26.

Remen, R. N. (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Trust the Unfolding

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My mom woke up from a dream one morning and heard the words, “Trust the unfolding.” These words were particularly poignant to her and, consequently, to the rest of my nuclear and immediate family, because they provided hope during a year in which there has been great flux and uncertainty.

For me these words have been like dangling tree vines that I grab onto desperately as I feel the ground leave me. Sometimes there is so much uncertainty in the space I find myself that it feels as if my body is in between inertia and falling. Many times this year I have been unclear about my path. I have questioned whether I am finding my soul’s purpose in the work I do. I have had second thoughts about where I live. And I have wondered if the choices I have made that keep me so far away from my family in California are truly in the best interests and for the higher good of my family, particularly my girls.

As tightly as I have clutched onto these words, I have still found myself not trusting. This year in particular I have realized how painful it is to trust, especially as I consciously attempt to lead by my heart in academia. My heart, not my head, brought me to higher education. My heart drives my work with families of children with dis/abilities and sustains my vibrancy as I engage with others about community-centered work. However, it is very challenging to share my heart in academic spaces where mutual trust is rare.

So, I am learning to navigate trust by recognizing when people open their hearts or close them. In academia I have discovered that sharing one’s heart – regardless of the passion behind one’s work – is often avoided or cloaked in theoretical frameworks. There are many conditions, it seems, to when, where, why, and with whom we are able to open our hearts to one another freely and without judgment. I have begun to notice how people respond to me when I consciously open my heart. Some are immediately attracted to this energy, others are repelled, and many are perplexed, uncomfortable, or curious – but uncertain.

I believe that many equate leading from the heart first rather than from the head as academic suicide. In academia, one of the first pieces of advice I received from one of my mentors on my dissertation committee was to “put aside what you really want to do until you get tenure.” What I believe he meant was not to engage in the work I wanted to do that integrated healing modalities with children with dis/abilities which, in essence, was heart-centered work. Rather, he was advising me to set my heart aside for a bit and dive into the “head work” of publishing studies in reputable peer-reviewed journals. He knew, as well as I do now, that many peer-reviewed journals in my field would find my work “fringy” and outside-the-box.

Possibly, to his and other mentors’ chagrin, I have followed a somewhat unconventional trajectory in academia by making choices based in my heart. Some may argue that my choices have not been strategic or “smart” enough, but for me most of all my decisions have been heart-centered and have been made with the following question in mind, “Is this choice aligned with my soul’s purpose?”

Trusting the unfolding in academia feels impossible sometimes. There are so many expectations and pressures associated with “being successful” not only as a scholar, but also as a teacher, researcher, and service agent. I have experienced sensations of both inertia and falling throughout my career. These have been especially poignant when what I am doing seems completely out-of-sync with what my soul yearns for. My heart, as the doorway to my soul’s purpose, is also a barometer that is in constant calibration. It tells me if what I am experiencing is in line with my passions and deepest longings.

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When I write about trusting and listening to my heart, I am expressing the need to be in non-stop communication with the messages it is providing. When I open my heart to others and receive a sinking feeling or coldness from their response it is my heart (linked to intuition) that discerns for me their unwillingness to meet me in the open space I have offered. In attuning myself to these messages, instead of allowing my head to dismiss the warnings, I can remain intact – the essence of who I am untouched. Perhaps for many, the ability not to feel the heart’s communication has provided them with the armor needed not to internalize another’s distance and closed-ness. For me, a person who is empathic, I have had to learn the heart’s language to understand when it is safe for me to open myself to others.

The challenge is that in academic spaces when my colleagues and I are engaged in serious conversations about working with historically minoritized and marginalized peoples or exploring what anti-racist practices are in our courses and everyday interactions, I cannot separate my heart from my work. I want to create a safe, sacred space for all of us to be protected as we critically unpack our individual experiences from collective ones. I want to support in authentic ways each person as they explore their own emotionality within the intellectual and academic environments of which we have co-created and, to certain degrees, are forced into.

Trusting the unfolding means to be myself and to allow others to engage with me (or not) in the healing and transformative processes that are available to us as colleagues in academia.

I will continue to trust, and hope that the unfolding will manifest mutual understanding, respect, and love.

 

Keep trusting, never give up.

 

Love,

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Fierceness in Education


In this video, fierceness is discussed as a powerful strength that we, as educators, can harness to protect and fight for our students. To harness this internal force means to do the WORK of critical self-reflection to deeply understand where we STAND on issues related to equity, social justice, and inclusive practices.

As educators we choose and are called upon to do this WORK and, in essence, become spiritual warriors. The archetype of “warrior” invokes both protector and fighter. In this video this archetype is discussed in relation to our own critical self-work and the ways we choose when and how to take a stand as advocates for our students and their families.

With much love,

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Interview with Many Rivers, Dr. Lorri J. Santamaría, Ph.D.

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Mini bio: 

Dr. Lorri Johnson Santamaria has her doctoral degree in Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology from the University of Arizona. She is a seasoned and accomplished academic in the fields of multicultural/multilingual education, social justice and equity in education, and educational leadership. She has worked as a university professor in Cal State San Marcos in Southern California and currently still works as a Professor of Educational Leadership in New Zealand. She has authored and edited several books in educational leadership and developed the theoretical framework, Applied Critical Leadership.

In the past year, Lorri’s life has taken an interesting and dynamic turn. Part of this story today is to capture Lorri’s unique, challenging, and rewarding journey with cancer.

We start today’s conversation, asking Lorri to share how her recent journey has shaped her views of spirituality, wholeness, and heart-centered approaches to healing. Then we ask her to extend the conversation to how what she has learned from her personal journey can be applied to transforming education and educational spaces. 

Links and Resources:

Many Rivers II Wellness  – This is a link to Lorri’s business website.

Newsletter 1: MRIIW Newsletter Spring2017

Academic Profile including publications.

Applied Critical Leadership_book

Showing Up & Being Present

Some days it is challenging to show up and be present. Yet, to be a reliable and consistent educator we need to be mindful of the ways in which our presence (or lack of) impacts others.

In this video, we explore what it means to show up, not just physically, but consciously and mindfully.

Thank you for your continued exploration into what it means to “be there” for your students and for the people in your lives with whom you interact.

Deep breaths and authentic smiles,

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