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Minerva Week 14: Service

December 16, 2014

What does it mean to serve?

Does it mean waking up at 6 am, walking into the interconnected bowels of a church basement and making 500 ham and whole wheat bread sandwiches that were given to anyone who needed them? Because, I did that.

Does it mean leading a hiking trip in the wild lands across the Golden Gate Bridge, and being surprised by kindness when I needed it the most? Because, that happened.
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Does it mean starting to work on an animated explanatory video of Minerva’s 19 Learning Principles and getting lost in the process, forgetting to eat until I got a headache? Because, I did that too.
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This week, I had time to think about service. I came to realize (through experience) that giving yourself to others is also a way of giving to yourself. I questioned what the balance was between serving others and experiencing the personal benefits of service. Can short-term gratification (I made someone a sandwich! They will not be hungry for lunch today!) make us stop short of pushing for goals that require more sacrifice (Oh, I agreed to help campaign for higher taxes…this is much less fun than I thought it would be). Figuring out the balance is still something I need to do, and I am grateful for the chance to serve at GLIDE (a non-profit organization helping the marginalized in San Francisco) and for the conversation that happened after, over a delectable breakfast of egg sandwiches (of much different quality than the food we were serving all those people – also food for thought). We heard from a developer who had bought the building in which we were sitting. His company plans to develop it into apartments, but while they are waiting for permits, they decided to ‘invigorate’ the neighbourhood by creating a dining hall and allowing local food entrepreneurs to set up in stalls. He talked frankly about the balance between bringing economic activity to a neighbourhood and gentrifying it (raising the prices and excluding people). He talked about the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) building next door – which offers affordable short-term housing for people who are housing-insecure (people who are living on social assistance may be able to use some of their money to stay in this kind of housing for a few days to a week of every month).

We talked with the passionate volunteer co-ordinator at GLIDE about whether she thinks GLIDE builds dependency by offering ‘aid’ to people (food and so much more) instead of empowering them out of the cycle of homelessness. “Some people aren’t able to integrate back into society after so long on the street. We see it as our responsibility to help those people, to serve their real needs.” Someone has to do this kind of work, I agree, but I want to understand what percentage of the social sector is focused on alleviating immediate needs and what portion is focused on systems change. Right now I have no idea. If there is an imbalance, that is not a good thing.

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After the morning’s activities (all of this happened on Friday), we went to the Minerva offices to discuss what will be happening next term, and to determine how we can give better feedback to the staff so that they can find ways to improve our experience and that of future students. Exhausting, but necessary! The Thai food at the end was a beautiful bonus.

Next, we talked to someone from Khan Academy (a not-for-profit that is famous for their online learning resources and the process they use to help people learn for themselves effectively. I have used their videos before to help me with math!). We were reminded that Khan Academy started when one man began filming tutorial videos for his cousin. Their goal is to make as much educational information as possible available online, and to guide people in learning how to learn for themselves. The conversation got me to wonder what can and can’t be taught online. Khan’s subjects mostly focus on what is taught in grade and high school, but are there subjects that we should really learn in school that simply aren’t taught? What might a class on Relationships look like? What about one on Character? I suppose there are Religion classes for certain schools, but I wonder whether someone’s ability to do trigonometry is really more important than their ability to empathize.

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Onto Saturday! “Californian snow,” I texted my mother. She knew I was fibbing. Just waves and froth. The sea was so wild. These waves were the largest I had ever seen, and seemed large even as I stared at them from high above a cliff. I had five other students with me and we were all experiencing the Marin Headlands, a beautiful stretch of land on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked, talked about tiny homes, were surprised and serenaded by a wannabee fire-eater, and then waited an hour in the cold for a bus that never came.

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Lucky for us, a joking attempt at hitch-hiking by one of our number led to a real car stopping. The driver and his friend took all six of us in the back seat, and proceeded to try to pick good music to “quell the awkwardness.” A dancefloor installer and a US Marine, they were two friends coincidentally headed to Chinatown, and so offered to drive us all the way home (here they are in the picture below. What kind guys!).

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And that’s when we saw them. ALL OF THE SANTA CLAUSES. EVERYWHERE! That day was the day of SantaCon – a pub crawl for people dressed as Old St. Nick. Santas were singing and dancing. It was quite a sight.

Something else happened to me on the next day, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. All I can post is this picture. I’ll let you imagine how and why I got to this magical place.

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This will likely be my last post of the semester. We’ll see! In any event, be well and the happiest of holidays! I’d rather say it twice than not say it at all!

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