What Does “Service” Really Mean?2016-12-02T06:50:23+00:00

By Charis Denison, Prajna Consulting
Punahou School Speech — April 2004
(delivered as part of a four-day consultation at Punahou)

Hello. Thank you for inviting me into your community today and all this week. It has been an honor. And congratulations on being soooo close to the end of a very long road!

I understand you have been celebrating the opening of the Luke Center for Public Service. That’s exciting. I am sure, as a result, you have had many conversations about “service,” what it means, and why it’s important. …

How many people have already stopped listening to me? … If not, you might be wondering why I am up here. I am someone who spends a lot of her time talking about service for a living, but I’m not here to talk about service. I’m here to share something about one of my favorite subjects — me. Who else here is their own personal favorite subject? … Good for you. I admire that in a person. So, I’m going to add you to the mix. Okay then, I’m going to talk about just you and me. So, let me explain something very important.

After eleven years of teaching I have discovered two signals that indicate to educators that we have done our job right regarding high school seniors. Both express themselves around the third week of April. I bring these signals up because they are directly relevant to the words I’m sharing with you today. One is that by the third week of April you (the seniors) have decided that you now know everything, and so virtually anything I (or anyone) might say at this point is superfluous. The other is that your eyes are so fixed on the horizon, the immediate appears to be a mere formality; perhaps, even most likely, irrelevant.

That said, since you now know everything and listening to anything I can tell you about your immediate reality is irrelevant, I am choosing to share three quick sure-fire keys to success that most schools don’t teach you. I know these three concepts work because I learned them from you. Well not from you personally, but from teenagers. (I have found my most helpful and wise advice from teenagers.) These sure fire tricks, again, are all about me. But, I’m thinking they might come in handy for many of you. So, here are the three things young people have taught me that have contributed to my success in the “real world”.

First, “fail” … as much as possible. Not only that, spend more time with fear. Hear me out. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence carefully doing certain things very well. I did this methodically. I did this because no one ever properly introduced me to the beauty of failure in such a way that it was not seen as something to avoid at all possible costs. My parents still love to tell the story of my learning to ride a bike. My father took the training wheels off my powder blue Schwinn, set me on top, and gave me a gentle push. I rolled about five feet, fell off (landing on my six-year-old face), picked up the bike, rolled it back to my waiting father, handed it off to him and said, “This bike doesn’t work.” The bike was put in a shed, and I refused to touch it. (Obviously, I was not a poster candidate for the risk-embracing, adventure-seeking child at this point.) It never occurred to me that screwing up might be something other than perilous. It never occurred to me that it might be an opportunity.

I finally began to get the picture at fourteen when my brother forced this lesson upon me. I was learning to rock climb and was attempting my first vertical crack in the mountains of Wyoming. We set up the ropes and harnesses, and as we were looking down from the top of the climb, which I was certain was about 28 stories tall, my brother said, “OK, now. You need to fall first; you know, to practice.” Well, of course I looked at him like he was a total idiot. I will spare you the arduous and tearful hours that followed before I made that fall, but my brother’s point was that I could not successfully attempt that climb without trusting the process that would get me there. I needed to feel my full physical weight held up by the ropes in order to start my ascent without them. Without knowing I could fail and survive, without trusting the process and the available support (in this case, my loving brother) I could not take the proper risks involved that would allow me to reach the top on my own. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t take any risks at all. Who would? This is actually one of the reasons I fell in love with the idea of service. It allowed me to explore paths I wanted to test out. It was a Win-Win. If I found out I wasn’t good at something, at least some good came out of it. Someone else benefited, even if I found out I was a putz at something. For example, at 20 years old I found out I am lousy at retail when I volunteered in a non-profit shop that benefits AIDS research. I found out I am great with tools and have a head for construction when I built houses in low-income neighborhoods. I narrowed down some career choices, and a few families got some housing. Makes sense, huh?

So, what does this have to do with you? I think you know where I’m going here. Mastering the art of doing just the right thing in the academic world can be accomplished with moderate risk. It makes life pretty predictable, too. Sort of handy. But, it’s boring. And, if you do only that, chances are, after a few years, you’re going to pick your head up and look around and see a bunch of people, stuff, and places that all look alike. However, if you let yourself veer off the “expected” path for a few minutes — not for a lifetime mind you — the coolest stuff can happen. Some of you probably have already tried this. Screwing up is an awesome way to figure things out. It’s sort of a rush, too! What do I mean by this? Trying something you might not be good at right away. Making a connection with someone who, superficially, might look like he or she has nothing in common with you. I learned to do this from watching the courage of teenagers. As I said, I was not like this as a teenager. So, in my twenties I started copying those who are. It is astounding to me to watch young people lean into this process of taking risks, rather than protecting themselves from it. In doing this, they are far more prepared than any of us who are holding back with our 3.8 GPA’s.

So, why don’t we do this risk taking more often? I’ll tell you why. Many of the traits you used to get the stellar (or just good enough) grades to get into college may actually hold you back after you leave here. You were advised to choose a wide and appropriate variety of subjects and activities that would send a certain message to colleges about “who you were.” You had to do this instead of becoming passionate about one subject for a month or so and then, going ballistic on another, or, pursuing an activity at which you are truly awful but that you enjoy incredibly. Okay, so what am I saying? Am I saying you just wasted your time? Absolutely not. What I’m saying is, you all worked hard to earn the grades and options you did up to now. Nice job. Excellent. However, at this point, they are no longer useful to you and never will be again. You are done with this chapter. Now, go figure yourself out without all these loving, well-meaning adults like myself getting in the way and mucking up your process with appropriate suggestions.

This is how I tried to undo some of the damage incurred by my own stellar private school education and to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the first year out of college in a wilderness area of Wyoming as a backcountry EMT ranger. I mean backcountry. I wanted to see what I was made of. I wanted to test my strength in nature and solitude. I wanted to get my parents off my back about what I was going to do with my English degree. Now, seeing that there are approximately 48 people in the entire state of Wyoming. And, let’s see, perhaps out of that 48, 18 of them backpack, and half of those actually know what they are doing. My job consisted of living alone in a small canvas wall tent at 9,000 feet and looking for any of the 8 or 9 people who might have been in trouble. Needless to say, I had a lot of time on my hands to figure out what I was made of. I left that job with a keen sense of how I do when I serve as my own community.

When I left that job, I decided to test out this new me but with a context. I traveled alone for a year in South East Asia. I wanted to know what the rest of the world looked like. I wanted to know how community was defined outside of our culture. I wanted to get my parents off my back about what I was going to do with my English degree. When I came back, it became apparent to me that I had a glimmer of who I was in silence and what I valued in community, but that I was sorely lacking a place in which to put myself. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. All I knew were two things: I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to be of use. Eventually, those two desires led to teaching and service. But, not out of any goodness of my heart. It came from desire. I love it. If law is what you find you love, you must do it. If running a company is what floats your boat, float it. It has to start with you. After you find your joy, then there will be plenty of places for you to share it. I can’t emphasize this enough. Too many people will tell you to think of others first. I refuse to buy into that. I think I am doing some really effective social justice work, and I am one the most self-centered people I have ever met.

This leads me to the second trick I have learned from young people — the real definition of integrity and service. And it’s not what the books tell you. In fact, when I run workshops around the country I start with my main premise and theory about effective Community Service Learning. Ready? In order for CSL to be truly effective, it must be selfishly motivated. I’m telling you. This is proven personal research with thousands of teenagers and myself. All this service stuff is important, very important. But it not the most important part of the process. That’s the myth. Does anyone know what the most important part of the process is? … You. Yep. It all comes back to you again. It’s all about you. See, any relationship based on respect is also based on reciprocity. That is to say that if I give to people with the presumption that they have nothing to offer me back, I am presuming myself better than they. I am basically being arrogant and am also preventing us from moving forward in our relationship. Just like service isn’t about the amount of time you spend on something but the passion you bring to it, it also isn’t about mere charity. All that does is perpetuate the idea that there are those who have and those who don’t. And I guess we are the ones that always have. Well, that’s a big lie. My 1 and a half year old’s godfather is an African American 65 year old man named Frank Sexton who lives in the projects of San Francisco and has the equivalent of an 8th grade education. He is one of the kindest, wisest, most fascinating men I have ever worked alongside. We have worked together at homeless job training program and soup kitchen for 10 years. I adore him. He is currently teaching my daughter how to tie every sailor’s knot in history, and she already knows how to say “Back off, Jack” if someone scares or intimidates her. Life is about reciprocity. It is a mistake to think we are “givers” in this society simply because we have more “stuff.” Often, we are the “have nots” but don’t realize it. The people that we choose to help in this lifetime, and I hope they are many, are an enormous resource to you. Use them. Their gifts are waiting to be opened. Many in society have been ignoring them too long. Those gifts and those “in need” will teach you as much if not more about the tools you will need starting in June than anything you have learned here at Punahou.

Again, how does this tie in with you? I learned this from watching teenagers. You all get this far easier than “adults.” You already know that the people in charge don’t really know what they’re doing, and they are not really as smart as they come off to be. Things are not what they appear. So, this idea that a narrow definition of charity is a dead-end street that perpetuates this idea of difference isn’t new to you, is it? We have to live the vision. And the vision is that everyone that is hungry will be able to eat. That everyone who needs a warm place to lie down will have one. Not because someone was kind enough to offer it. But because that is justice. Because that is what everyone deserves. That’s why my students and I always eat with clientele at a soup kitchen. Because we are living the vision. For just one hour, we can all sit together and eat a meal because we are all hungry and we don’t have to stop and figure out who deserves to eat more, and that we won’t eat because we are so different.

The third and final thing young people have shown me is the true definition of “integrity.” I’ve read a lot about it. Adults love to write about stuff, it’s doing the stuff we often have conflict with. Stephen Carter, this dude from Harvard writes about the three steps we each need to take to be a person of integrity. I don’t agree with some of his ideas but I like this one. We must be able to: (1) discern right from wrong; (2) act on what you have discovered, even at personal cost; and (3) say openly that you are acting on your understanding. Now, people who strive for a life with integrity can usually pull off steps one and two. The figuring out what is right for them and acting on it. But, somehow, in this culture we don’t want to talk about justice in relation to what it has to do with us. We somehow think if we tell someone else, for example, that we object to the death penalty, and that we are in the field of law and do pro bono work on the side to oppose the death penalty — that we are bragging. I think there is a misconception that to talk about and explain the good work we are doing is a negative act. It is like pulling teeth to get my students to get up in assembly and talk about the amazing work they are doing in their community. They somehow think it is boastful, selfish, self-serving. They are ashamed to draw attention to themselves. Carter is saying just the opposite. He is saying that it is a cop out if you don’t talk about your actions of integrity. He says a person of integrity is unashamed of doing right. People of integrity are willing not only to do the right thing but also to tell us why they are doing what they are doing. Now, in getting young people to get up and do this, I have learned an enormous amount. Something that you all already know. You know what is right. You know a lot of what needs to be done. And the beauty is that if you do this whole “life” thing using this “selfish” model, you can have it all. You can have economic and personal success. You can create positive change and justice, and you can show off your expensive academic intelligence by explaining to the doofuses out there who don’t get it and are screwing things up how they might think about the world differently.

So, while the points I brought up today may seem a bit “out there,” I can tell you two things about them. One, I learned them from my own students (who are the best teachers I ever had), and two, I’ve seen these theories work time and again. Seek out failure and forget a lot of the skills you’ve learned so far. But most of all, be selfish first. The rest will fall into place. Finally, from now on, try to stop listening to adults so much, including me. You already know more than enough to get out there. I wish you continued success. I wish you challenge. I wish you community. But most of all, I wish you joy.