Sydney McKinley: Before rush to volunteer and take action, it’s best to listen

At times, living in the District can feel like strolling through an amusement park – walking by the White House can feel like visiting the Magic Kingdom.

And it doesn’t help that the University’s branding campaign fetishizes D.C. life.

But this is a dangerous trap – and it has consequences.

Rather than viewing ourselves as temporary residents of the District – or owners of a season pass to the theme park – we should realize that by moving here, we have joined a community. With this comes real responsibility.

It is reassuring to see a large portion of GW students mobilized to address our community’s pressing concerns through impactful service activities, like D.C. Reads, Jumpstart and Peer Health Exchange. Further, the University has recently been placing a special emphasis on this work, with administrative committees figuring out how to incentivize this action.

Community service and this mentality are positive. But there is something else we are not so good at: listening.

As college students, there is no other time in our lives when we will be as free to engage with our community in creative ways. If we hope to play a meaningful role in improving the condition of our city, however, listening to the debate going on around us is an essential first step that too many individuals disregard and rush past.

Attend local meetings – like the public school board and city council meetings hosted once a month, where important issues like funding initiatives for disadvantaged public schools and drug criminalization are discussed. Sit in and listen to the public and the decision makers with an open mind.

If we want to be informed enough to make real and meaningful change, there needs to be honest and strong communication between us and those who are most directly affected by the issues.

Rather than going in and out of our jobs, working to complete enough hours for the week, we must seek real conversations with the parents, students, teachers and homeless around which our volunteerism revolves.

Instead of operating off of your preconceived notions of what “the struggle” is like, take the time to ask these people questions about what issues matter.

There are clear gaps in communication and ways for us to fix them – all we have to do is pay attention. For example, despite recent efforts to include parents in the process of the D.C. public school district boundary overhaul, the focus groups have failed to accurately represent the city, with only 7 percent of the participants from Wards seven and eight, according to a report from the Washington Post.

Though not as egregious, this type of behavior is reminiscent of the era of Michelle Rhee, a woman who is now infamous in the District for her aggressive and unapologetic education reform tactics. About a year ago, when Rhee returned to D.C. to promote her book, she said she learned that “how you do something is just as important as what you do – and on that trajectory we fell short.”

We can learn from Rhee’s mistakes. When moving to action, one must prioritize the perspectives of those who you are trying to serve. We can only do that if we take the extra step beyond volunteering and immerse ourselves in this community’s issues.

This failure to properly learn from – and acknowledge the dignity of – all members of our community should be a major concern. For better or for worse, we are all tied into each others’ wellbeing. This understanding is particularly essential in that many of us will call the District our home for more than four years. And down the road, these learning experiences eventually put students in a position to negotiate with those in power.

As someone who was not born or raised anywhere near here, I understand that it can be tough to forge a connection after a few short years. But as Martin Luther King Jr. writes in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We must assume communal responsibility in the pursuit of making our new home more equitable and happier for us all.

Whether or not you plan to remain in the District after graduation, we should all be invested in the place we live now. With the proper balance of humility and audacity, we can better embrace our role as members of this community.

Sydney McKinley is a junior majoring in political science and sociology.

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