I was walking toward a volunteer and activism event on the Winona State University campus Tuesday evening when a fresh-faced college kid walking in the opposite direction bounded toward me.
“What’s going on over there?” he asked, gesturing to the live music, grilled food, and rows of tables filled by area nonprofits.
I told him it was a place to learn about Winona-area organizations, find opportunities to volunteer.
He thought about that for a second. “You mean like going to campus events, like homecoming?”
I studied his face for a moment for signs of irony. There were none.
I told him it wasn’t exactly like that, that volunteering meant serving the community.
He thought about that, too, then said, again in absolute earnest: “So it’s like picking up litter and things like that.”
Not exactly, I told him, while idly scanning my environment to see if someone was filming our exchange. Picking up litter is great, sure. But volunteering, I told him, is finding good organizations that serve people in need in the community, then doing what you can to help keep them going. Organizing fundraisers. Sorting clothes. Helping clients.
The kid scrunched his brow, then smiled with a sense of some small revelation. “That makes sense,” he said, then continued on his way.
It was a good reminder for anybody who teaches: We often forget just how much kids--and adults--don’t know.
Those who volunteer sometimes forget to teach. Even if for good reason--they’re too busy doing.
After the event I attended a speech by Paul Loeb, an activist and writer. Nothing he said particularly moved me, maybe because I had heard it all before, even if I’m not nearly valiant enough to have practiced any of it.
Then I realized: He wasn’t speaking to me.
He was teaching.
He saw a room full of fresh-faced college kids sitting before him, many of whom likely also thought volunteering meant going to homecoming events, but were too shy to ask whether they were right.
He saw that crowd and realized his purpose for the night was to teach them just exactly what volunteering and activism could be.
He didn’t get them all. Some were clearly there on a class assignment, sat in the balcony, and snuck out early. But he knew he wouldn’t and said as much. The persistence required to succeed in any cause, he said, includes knowing the importance of turning even a single mind.
He turned plenty that night.
If in part because of a particularly wise observation: Those who don’t volunteer sometimes don’t know that they can.
He shot for the moon with his first example, describing a young and shy Martin Luther King reluctant to get involved after Rosa Parks was arrested. Then he gave a more relatable example, of a college student who took over a flailing sustainability organization on campus and turned it into such a success that after she graduated, in a time of crushing budget cuts, the president hired her into a permanent position.
The message being that you do not need to be perfect, you do not need to be confident, you do not need to be everything. That everyone has a role to play--even those afraid of the sound of their own voice. That if you find your people, your cause, as he put it, you may be surprised at how quickly you grow to at least tolerate the sound of your own voice.
So, those who volunteer need to remember to teach whenever they can. Those who don’t volunteer need to remember they can.
I left with only one lingering question: How do you reach the earnest kid?
The one who doesn’t have a clue, whose feet, by incidental learned behavior and routine, propel him away from anywhere he might learn?
Good for him that he stopped and asked. Though I’m not convinced he picked the right guy.
Maybe that’s the answer, the missing third piece of advice.
Those who don’t always do need to remember they can at least teach.
I didn’t stand in front of a crowd Tuesday night with a lifetime of experience and advice to impart. I had no crowd, no advice.
But the kid walked up to me, so I stopped, listened, and did what I could, what little it was.
For all I know the kid wandered off into the night without changing his behavior a bit.
Then again, even if he picked up a piece of litter on his way, it’s a start.
Brian Voerding is the editor of the Daily News.