By Ari Goodman
As part of my AVODAH placement, I am responsible for helping manage Inspiration Café, a meals program for participants of our supportive service programs. I had been staffing Inspiration Corporation’s morning breakfast shifts for two months before I finally got the chance to partner with Kevin. Kevin had been working café shifts for almost three years, becoming a master of multitasking various responsibilities while simultaneously engaging every participant.
I had gotten into a rhythm of making myself cozy at the entrance to the café, checking people in and staying on the sidelines and letting our trained volunteer servers work their magic. I kept a certain distance from the ordering and serving taking place, as my exhaustion from waking up at 5 AM made staying sleepily on the sidelines more appealing than engaging with participants. Of course, Kevin would have none of that.
“We gotta get in the field, Ari!” he called from a table. “Things aren’t going to take care of themselves, you know.”
This served as my wake-up call, both for becoming more engaged in the cafe experience, and for how I thought about my year of service. While on the surface “getting in the field” is nothing more than a go-to catch-phrase, I’ve come to understand that it contains hidden wisdom that addresses some challenges in the AVODAH experience. For some Corps Members, myself included, our previous encounters with social justice work had taken place in academic and intellectual environments. Our impressions of the social justice profession have developed through Blog posts, college courses, and discussions over dinner. These kinds of dialogues are crucial, as they build the foundations for knowledge and understanding of the issues that affect our world. However, a challenge that Corps Members inevitably face is when we have to transition from conversations to engaging with the actual work. Social justice work can sometimes seem like a purely intellectual activity, until you encounter someone’s actual life.
My first such experience came for me in mid-November. I had been working with a participant (let’s call her L), who was about to graduate from Inspiration’s food service program. Like other participants, she was looking to use her newly acquired kitchen skills to find permanent employment in the food-service industry. L was hell bent on finding a job and becoming self-reliant; she told me that her ultimate goal was to find a restaurant that would allow for long-term employment and upward mobility. I was so moved by her determination that when I finally found an employer who was looking for referrals, L was the first participant I sent.
I wasn’t surprised when she told me she got the job, but I was absolutely stunned by how it altered my perspective of this AVODAH year. L thanked me profusely, saying that this opportunity was going to be a turning point in her life. When I spoke to her later at her graduation ceremony, I could sense a profound shift in her confidence and demeanor. She sounded like someone who had just won the lottery, and rightly so: people experiencing homelessness face many barriers to employment, which means that finding a job, the key to stopping the vicious cycle of homelessness, is of the utmost importance.
I had a two-fold insight as a result of L’s employment achievement. First, I discovered the reason why people choose to go into this work. Social services can be exhausting and stressful, but also has the potential to be truly rewarding. The act of helping people to support themselves can evoke powerful feelings (ones which I still do not have the words to describe). Second, I realized that I had helped a real person with real struggles; this was no longer an intellectual activity. The excitement that she demonstrated was a reflection of a history of struggle. Like others who struggle with homelessness, L faced numerous barriers to finding long-term security and self-reliance. It is easy enough to imagine someone going through this- it is an entirely different experience to speak, collaborate, laugh, and eat with someone whose history is shaped by it.
I believe that these are the kinds of occasions that should be at the core of Social Justice work. They ground our understandings and add a relatable human face to what can be a dizzying journey of abstract concepts and ideas. The AVODAH experience is unique because it allows true engagement with diverse populations, supplementing it with the framework necessary to fully comprehend what we are interacting with.
A true challenge of Social Justice that AVODAH poses to Corps Members is how to balance knowledge and action. I have found that there is a fine line between striving for understanding and completely separating oneself from engagement in pursuit of armchair wisdom. I cannot stress enough what I have found to be the truth: genuine engagement with other people is the building block to social change. Through my experiences with AVODAH, Inspiration Corporation, and the wonderful people I am serving, I am learning that sometimes you just have to get in the field.
Ari Goodman is from Encinitas, CA, attended University of California-San Diego, and is a Business Services Representative at Inspiration Corporation.