the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.


In human behavior on June 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

i’m back from my michigan vacation with the fam. to make up for the lack of recent posts, here’s my (long) take on service learning:

I am furious. If they laugh one more time when John asks a question, I think, I am going to say some things that would make my Grandmother faint. “Kami,” I start, taking off my glasses and biting the edge of the frames, “Can you translate John’s question for me?”

“We already answered it.” He says, grinning like a fourth-grader whose spitwad just hit the back of a classmate’s neck. “It was a silly question.”

“I’d still like you to translate the question, Kami…there’s a reason he asked it—and even if the question was out of line, we can at least consider some of the ideas or opinions that John has about HIV/AIDS that are making him ask it.”

“It’s silly, though.”

“Sure… but so is the cap you’re wearing.” Kami adjusts his hat so that the word Hustla, with a $ where the S should be, faces away from me.

“…And we’re all here to learn.” I add, somewhat arbitrarily, like the line a politician falls back on in the middle of a heated debate—Country First, or Change We Can Believe In.

“He asked—“ Kami pauses, letting out one last giggle, “How you would know if your condom fell off during sex?”


AIDSTanzania has worked in the village of Imbeseni, Tanzania for four years. We do not know how far into the future our organization’s partnership with the people of Imbeseni will extend. Nor do we know if what we provide for this village—we help develop and support the HIV/AIDS education, outreach, and advocacy programs of young adults and mothers in the area—is something that is needed: while John’s question (or any of the scenarios and opinions and ideas posed to us) would seem to indicate our presence is something healthy and—in the long term—essential to any effort to eradicate HIV/AIDS in Imbeseni, inquisitiveness belies both an outward and inward questioning of one’s place in the (classroom, social circle, community) world. And this is a form of questioning that cannot be transplanted from one mind to the next; this is a query that defies resolution.

It seems pretentious, or at least heavy-handed, to say that AIDSTanzania deals with the existential questions of a small village community—but in a place with few mirrors, and with the spectre of AIDS made that much more chilling by its invisibility, the youth we work with see the past, present, and future reflected in the faces of friends, family, and elders. Their life is not traced out along a clean narrative arc. They live in a condensed, kinetic now. Meaning is derived through lived experience, not banal recountings or summaries of accomplishments and failures: All of the questions our organization has gathered from our work in Tanzania can be distilled, then, to a single, present-tense inquiry: Why are we here? The answer is personal (throw out “all” from my instinctual response, “We’re all here to learn.”), nebulous (What does it mean “to learn”? Who does “we” refer to?), and maybe a little silly (more on that later). Yet, it has the potential to be—in relation to the way we talk about, analyze, and engage in service and service learning (if we can disentangle those two)—transformative.

“Light bulb” moments are often spoken of when discussing civic engagement: in a flash, an individual’s perceptions of their relationship with their environment are shattered and reformed; the substratum and the superstructure of lived experience, illuminated in these moments, become explainable, tangible, malleable. Or at least that’s how I hear them described. But to focus on these single moments, to remove them from their context, is to ignore the confusion, the lack of control, the emotional haze which envelopes the mind and body during service. A classroom filled with mothers young and old, with one holding up a calendar to pick out the date for their next meeting; a video camera beginning to tremble in a student’s hands and then find a knowing stability as his friend tells the story of a mutual acquaintance who succumbed to AIDS; a group of young men holding hands as they enter a makeshift HIV testing clinic: these are my “light bulb” moments from a recent trip to Tanzania—not because they reveal, in an instant, some essential truth or common humanity. They illuminate instead the charges, those constantly shifting and swirling opposite forces, which create the ever-present, yet invisible current of our thoughts. The idea that we gain a new perspective through service is, at best, an oversimplification; interpreted as the prerogative of an individual who has the time or resources to step outside of shoes that sit, unused, under a desk, it is harmful. Civic engagement should force the individual to wrestle with the contradictions of his- or her- or “the” self, to foreground the stress and confusion of lived experience—to brighten the edges of our hazy consciousness and point to ways we can push outward at these boundaries, reaching towards (if not touching, or changing) others.  No service project can be called a selfish endeavor; rather, all great service problematizes one’s perception of the self.

I sometimes explain this idea of the “problematization of the self” by talking about voices. My voice is only truly my own when I recognize it as, paradoxically, a mixture of multiple voices: there is the subtle hesitancy of my late grandfather in my cadence. My brother’s carefree spirit pushes my tone upward at times; my sister’s biting sarcasm drops it low. I sometimes mumble through invented aphorisms like my favorite high school teacher; other times, I project my voice as only the son of a drama teacher would. In the last few years, I began to hear my own voice in others. Phrases, sentences spoken by others came off as eerily familiar. Uniqueness and identity are accidental, the fading afterglow of a chance union of disparate ideas—those alternating currents. You can explore the etiology of this fusion, you can try (and fail) to replicate this experiment in dialectics. And then, inexplicably, the connection happens again, through service. There is a contrapuntal harmony to all of the service projects I have been, and continue to be, a part of—a shared theme twists through the different rhythms and melodies of life in Kenya and Berkeley, Tanzania and Philadelphia: surprise.

The sort of change that shifts your worldview is accidental as well, and often, yes, funny or seemingly trite—like a teenage boy’s voice cracking. Of course, there are basic hormonal and physiological reasons for a voice suddenly crisscrossing octaves, but the meaning we derive from this event is something completely different: made audible, pointed to for an instant, is change itself—that messy, conflicted shift in how the young man defines and is defined by his world. Service with predictable, foreseeable highs (i.e. everyone is clapping for us! We finished the house! This must be one of those ‘light bulb moments’), or objective goals (100 people tested = success) does not challenge the idea of one’s self or community. In their study on learning and affective states, Craig et al (2004) explain that comprehension occurs when learners confront contradictions, anomalous events, surprises, and other stimuli or experiences that fail to match expectations. We do not learn from passive, prescribed service. It makes the participant blind to those small gestures that give experience—if not meaning—feeling; the cracking voice, the condom-slips-off-question—a momentary disharmony authenticates life as something, well, lived, untranslatable to a résumé or grad-school admissions essay. This type of service allows us to see the fleeting and imperfect but ultimately redemptive nature of human connection and communication.

Your service experiences should not strive to give you isolated ah-ha moments of hyperconsciousness; instead, they should allow you to see how hard and frustrating and draining and necessary it is to live every minute aware of the choices and non-choices (which are themselves choices) we make—to ask a question; to engage with the John’s and Kami’s of the world; to get tested for HIV, not because you feel you’re at-risk, but because a complete stranger asked you to get tested with him. This kind of normal, boring (if not more demanding) consciousness can be just as liberating as any light bulb moment. The late novelist David Foster Wallace: “[This] really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Replace the words profound, intertwined, or light bulb as descriptors in your service lexicon with unsexy, and you’ll be on a better prepared to, if not resolve, think about and discuss every question from “How you would know if your condom fell off during sex?” to “Why are we here?”


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