by Bob Reeg
I lived my childhood in a midwestern, mid-century, residential subdivision populated at the time nearly exclusively by White people. I recall no people of color walking the neighborhood’s streets, nor peers of color at my parochial elementary school. And despite the neighborhood being named “Indian Hills,” with street names such as Kickapoo and Big Chief, I assure you that during my childhood there were few to no American Indians in them hills.
Surrounded by all that Whiteness, I sure could have been immunized from exposure to people of races, ethnicities, countries, and cultures different from mine. I could have formed biases against people who are “Un-American” simply by not knowing anyone not of Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Fortunately, I was exposed to human diversity despite my homogenous living and learning environments. How? Through my parents’ volunteering with an international service organization, Y Service Clubs International. (The organization’s clubs throughout the world function as “booster clubs” to their neighborhood YMCAs.) My parents began their volunteering “simply” enough, being among the founders of a local Y service club (I put “simply” in quotes because it is no simple thing to start a new organization much less to maintain it for 40 years.) My mom rose through the organization’s ranks, holding district, region, and US area roles, eventually attaining the office of International President, the first woman to hold that office in 1990 (Take that, glass ceiling!).
Along their volunteering journey, my parents traveled across the United States and around the world. Australia, Denmark, and Japan, but also Ecuador, India, and Nigeria… this is a far from a complete list. (Fun Fact: There is a community center somewhere in India whose cornerstone bears my mom’s name by virtue of her office as International President at the time it was laid.) Also, my parents and their local service club hosted countless international Y Service visitors to St. Louis. Sometimes these Black and Brown and White guests ate and slept in our Indian Hills home.
Not once did either of my parents denigrate our guests as lesser than us. Nor did they ever describe the countries they visited as “holes in the wall.” On the contrary, each trip and guest was seized and utilized as an opportunity to learn, share, grow, and enjoy.
How lucky am I to have had so much exposure to nationality and culture diversity! My parents’ volunteering gave me a window on the world.
Volunteering can do such things. Volunteering introduces you to people unlike you yet just like you because they also were compelled to volunteer for the same cause as yours. Volunteering exposes you to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual gifts of others regardless of their nation of origin, race, ethnicity, or other characteristic. And volunteering strengthens the communities in which we live, learn, work, play, and pray together by strengthening social networks. Volunteering, then, is an effective strategy for punching holes in the walls of ignorance, suspicion, and fear that we erect to divide one from another.
This coming Monday is the annual observance of the Martin Luther King National Day of Service. If you are called to volunteer on MLK Day and looking for an opportunity, visit https://www.nationalservice.gov/mlkday. If you are not able to “take the day on,” then please use this MLK Day to explore regular volunteering or to reaffirm your current volunteering. We in the social purpose sector need you! And Peace Through Action USA welcomes you (see https://peacethroughaction.org/volunteer/.)
Be a volunteer, and punch some holes through those walls!
PS – That Indian Hills neighborhood of my childhood has become much more diverse since I left it 30 years ago. Over 30 languages are spoken by families in the population of the school district serving the neighborhood. My mom’s next-door neighbors are of Vietnamese heritage, succeeding a refugee family from Bosnia. And when Mom looks out the window of her sitting room today, she can see across the street a Southeast Asian family with a grandmother wearing a vibrant-colored head scarf and young grandchildren riding their tricycles along the driveway. And, Mom is not afraid. She is curious. She is intrigued.
Bob Reeg is the founder and chief executive officer of Peace Through Action USA, a national-scope, charitable, social capital-building organization that activates and equips Americans to implement practical peaceful solutions to aggression and violence in their communities and our country.