The Selfishness and the Revolutionary Acts in Service
The best advice I received after finishing my term of service with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps came from the activist Van Jones. I’m paraphrasing here, but in one of his lectures he served up the sobering wisdom that any one who identifies as a radical or a revolutionary, basically anyone who wants to create change in the world, must admit that at least part of his or her motivation comes from a certain degree of selfishness.
When I first joined the NCCC, I would have been offended if someone was to question my motivation as something self-serving. Sure, the constant travel satisfied the adventure I felt was owed to me after four years at university, and the sense of purpose filled a much needed void left in my spirit and intellect since my classes ended. But I was forgoing money and career to devote my time to helping people. And even though I would never admit it in public, I felt as if I was embarking on a revolutionary path. In my view, this path was a completely altruistic endeavor.
I still believed this when I first arrived at McClellan Air Force base in Sacramento California, reveling in my fortunate situation of being stationed so close to San Francisco, Napa, and the Redwood Forest. I continued to believe it when I first felt the pride of wearing the “A”. And I didn’t question it, even as the main topic of conversation among my fellow corps members that followed our month of corps training was dominated by the question of what team would get stationed closest to New Orleans.
When I arrived in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for my first assignment to work with Habitat for Humanity rebuilding houses, my “altruism” continued. I was less than two hours from New Orleans, I was living on the beach, I was learning carpentry and I was treated like a celebrity whenever a local would find out what I was doing there.
As I now reflect on this experience, Van Jones’ quote comes into even greater focus. I can pick through many memories, and his assessment is validated. That is except for one. And that’s the memory of working with Tom. Out of the two months I spent on a construction site in Bay St. Louis, Tom was there each day. We used to joke that every time we would call down from the roof for another piece of wood and we would give him a series of angles and lengths we thought we make the perfect cut, he’d just wave his hand and say, “Naw, naw, just tell me how long it needs to be.” Every piece he’d send back up would fit perfectly.
The story was that Tom rode Katrina out on his roof, was up there for a day or two with his wife before someone came to rescue him. I don’t know if this was true or if I’m recalling it accurately, but that’s what I remember. And it seemed at the time like the only plausible explanation for why Tom would show up every morning like he was staying true to a time sheet to help rebuild these homes even though he wasn’t getting paid at all.
I now realize that Tom wasn’t doing this to pay back some divine debt for his life being spared during the storm. He wasn’t doing this to be a revolutionary. He was working everyday to rebuild houses because it was the right thing to do. It was a simple as that.
As I continue in the professional and personal life I have forged since finishing my term of service, I do things that people may consider revolutionary. I have built 2 community gardens, an urban farm, and I continue to voluntarily manage another urban farm with my wife, which she built five years ago. I run a publishing company that is finding every innovation possible to keep printing books and connecting our writers to the publishing process. And I now am again working with AmeriCorps youth through the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.
Of course, I find pride in these ventures and pursuits. But what I actually consider a more revolutionary act is when I mow the grass in the pocket park across the street from my house. Or when I attend the neighborhood association meetings, or get involved with parent groups to help improve the schools even though I don’t have kids yet. That to me is real revolution, block by block, empty lot by empty lot, community meeting by community meeting. Doing it for the same reasons Tom showed up on site everyday for—because it was the right thing to do.
Nic Esposito is a writer, urban farmer, and the Founder of The Head & The Hand Press, which published The Rust Belt Almanac (pictured below) & was featured in an August article of the Atlantic CITIES. Nic served in AmeriCorps*NCCC from 2006-2007.