The most transformative journey of my life began in a beat up Honda Accord. Fresh out of high school, I crammed my little beater with my earthly possessions, swallowed my fear, and pointed that fine piece of Japanese engineering northward. My destination? Cleveland, Ohio. The reason? A year of service with AmeriCorps.
It was August of 2003, and if you had told me just two months before that I'd be headed to Cleveland for a year, I would have told you that you were nuts. Though I wanted to escape rural Kansas for the hustle and bustle of the city, Cleveland was not my vision of a cosmopolitan metropolis. Instead, I had spent my senior year applying to colleges all over New York, Chicago, and LA. But by April, every single one of those schools had rejected me, setting me back to square one just weeks before graduation...
AmeriCorps was not something that had been on my radar, but when you suffer rejection at the level I did, it forces you to reevaluate a lot of things. Through those rejections, I came to realize what truly defined me. I had grown up in a family that always sought to give back to our community, to serve those in need, and to strive for social justice. It was at these moments that I felt most alive, so I knew I needed to redirect these rejections into something that helped me give back. AmeriCorps was my answer.
My AmeriCorps year was everything you might imagine, transformative, jarring, life-changing, world-bending, etc. But there was a deeper impact from that year that has resonated with me to this day: AmeriCorps redefined the way I serve others. Before AmeriCorps, I tended to volunteer at one-time events. The result was a resume peppered with service opportunities that I had enjoyed, but made little sustainable impact. AmeriCorps required me to serve the same school over the course of an entire year. While this wasn't always easy, it showed me the huge impact you can have on someone's life when you serve them consistently.
We millennials are known as 'the giving generation' and yet I fear that our impact is much like my pre-AmeriCorps service: a mile wide and an inch deep. We hop on social media and 'like' dozens of causes, we dump water on our heads to raise awareness, and even drink beer for social change. But I believe that all of our good intentions and activism result in very little real impact because we move from one cause to another without ever digging in deep. The only way to create true social change is through sustained service. Here's how you can find your way to service that will actually change the world:
1. Recognize you may need to explore multiple causes at first. I can't deny that by volunteering at multiple organizations I was able to clarify the type of service that I would engage in long term. However, your end goal needs to be the discovery of one cause that you can pour into over the long term.
2. Know that to change one life is to change the world. The world faces massive problems that can seem insurmountable. As a result, I find that many people get jaded and believe that they can't possibly make a difference against social ills. Know this: if you change just one life, you've already changed the world. So, find a volunteer opportunity that will allow you to transform one life. By doing this, your work will ripple into world changing impact.
3. Find a cause you are willing to commit to for 5+ hours per month. For me, this is Big Brothers. My little bro and I are able to spend several hours each month hanging out around the city, chatting life, and generally keeping ourselves out of trouble. The impacts of mentorship are tremendous and they are made possible only when a long-term connection is created.
4. Remember that if we all did this, we'd transform our communities. You'll change the world just by changing one life, and you should also be willing to encourage others to serve in this way. Social change is all about creating ripples that magnify into waves, so, once you've found your one true cause, encourage others to discover this new way of service.
5. Be sure you're working in your strengths. Remember that serving others is a process. While it is important to dedicate yourself to one cause, it is even more important to consistently reflect on your impact. If you find your service stagnating, don't be afraid to gracefully and thoughtfully change it up.
What started as a journey in a beat up Honda Accord wound up dramatically shifting the way I view social change. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you feel about my philosophy of social change?
Let me know by leaving a comment below.
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