Thursday, October 1, 2009

Early Challenges

I'm still not quite used to the blog format. I realized a few days ago that I was treating the blog like a weekly television show. By that I mean I thought each post should be a self-contained entry in which I presented some aspect of my experience and then gave some pithy lesson I learned as closure to both the experience and the entry. I was, and still am, struggling with the early stages of trying to make a difference and I know now that if I wait until I have closure on those struggles it may be months before I post. So, at the risk of sounding whiny, here's what I've been wrestling with...

A quick recap of the situation: My two teammates and I are working with an afterschool organization called TOPPS in the city of Pine Bluff. Pine Bluff is an hour from Little Rock. Our schedule allows us to travel there one day each week for a maximum of 4-5 hours. All three of us got hooked on TOPPS after our first meeting with them. The small staff is dedicated to doing good works. Like many non-profits, TOPPS is struggling financially. They have both immediate and long-term financial needs. Because they operate primarily on grants, which have many stipulations about how money can be spent, they offer a wide variety of programs which meet the conditions of the grants they've won. Offering so many programs has led to both immediate and long-term focus needs. The staff realizes they're stretched too thin.

Enter three Clinton School students in the early stages of their service-learning education. Full of enthusiasm, but not much expertise. Also full of the philosophy "Help others help themselves." Similar to the "Teach a man to fish" philosophy. Most, if not all, of our early education here at the Clinton School has emphasized the importance of generating solutions to a community's problems by developing the strengths and assets that exist within the community through thoughtful conversation. Actions that result from the conversation should have long-term intentions. We are taught to avoid riding in on our horses, dispensing advice or money, and then riding away. The Clinton School is about sustainable development, not temporary relief. I'm sold on that idea.

Which leads to my frustrations of the past week: I don't know how to have the level of conversation necessary to get the ball rolling when our time at TOPPS is so limited. I don't know how to feel like anything except an outsider to the Pine Bluff and TOPPS community.

Two things have eased, but not alleviated, my frustration recently.
The first is one of my teammates who has a different perspective on the same situation. Latonya's glass is definitely half-full. She sees our relationship with TOPPS as a gift both for us and them and she doesn't mind that it's going to take a while to unwrap the gift. She has faith.

The second is a report written by students from the Clinton School who worked in Pine Bluff two years ago. The report details their 7-month experience working on a similar project in the same city. The early stages of their project were also frustrating for similar reasons and yet, by the end, they'd made significant contributions to the city. Reading about their struggles and strategies for dealing with them gave me hope. And also inspired me to keep posting on this blog despite not having answers. There is value in struggling together.