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If It Takes a Village, Build OneHow I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways You Can Too
By Malaak Compton-Rock
BroadwayCopyright © 2010 Malaak Compton-Rock
All right reserved.
I n t r o d u c t i o n
The Glorious Adventure of a Life in Service
Dedicate your life to a cause greater than yourself and your life
will become a glorious romance and adventure.
—MACK R. DOUGLAS
I stood in front of the crowded room at the Bushwick Salvation
Army Community Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, readying myself to speak to the seventy children who had gathered in front of me. The kids looked up at me with a wide array of expressions, somewith broad smiles and eager eyes, some with curious, watchful stares, and even a few with bored faces.
We were meeting in the cafeteria of the community center that
regularly feeds the homeless and elderly during the day, along with the throngs of elementary, middle school, and high school students who arrive in the afternoon after school. After serving the evening meal, the staff hurriedly cleaned up to ensure that the space was
ready for the students and their families, who would soon arrive. Some of the youths were seated at tables and others were sitting on folding chairs that had been brought in from other rooms to handle the overflow of kids, parents, grandmothers, godparents, friends, and staff who had assembled to hear me speak. I was at once excited but also very nervous. I knew what I had to offer these kids could very well change their lives. I had a sense that we were all about to embark on something very special. This was the first meeting I was having with these middle school children from Bushwick, Brooklyn, an inner- city neighborhood that consistently struggles with drug abuse, child neglect, gang violence, and poverty, and I was
there to invite them to be part of a program I had recently dreamed up, the seeds of which were sown in a shack in the shantytown of Diepsloot in Johannesburg, South Africa, as I sat telling a grandmother who was raising her five grandchildren about the youths in
Bushwick and my desire to impact their lives in a significant way. This program, which came to be called Journey for Change: Empowering Youth Through Global Service, was a journey for all of us in every sense of the word. By the time we were done, it would take
us to South Africa; to the halls of the Capitol building in Washington, DC; to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana; back to Brooklyn; and to many places in between.
But now we were just beginning. I was working with the Bushwick chapter of the Salvation Army, in the very community center where my husband, Chris, came throughout his childhood for afterschool care and summer school. He even received his baptism certificate from the church here. He and I had been supporting the extraordinary work of the Salvation Army in this neighborhood, hoping to ensure that these kids got the same opportunities he had been lucky enough to get. With the support of Target, (RED), and
Dell, we were in the process of establishing a new computer lab and library, and this work allowed me to spend time with the kids and get to know them; as a result, I became determined to do even more to help them overcome the many challenges they faced in their
So there I was, standing in front of everyone, telling the children that I would be selecting thirty kids to take to South Africa to meet the grannies and orphaned and vulnerable children I had come to know and love, to serve people who needed their help, to experience
the world beyond their own community, and maybe come to understand some of the blessings they had at home. I wanted them to understand that it was going to be a fun, inspiring trip that would change their lives for the better. I told them about my love of South
Africa, how it had changed me from the first time I went, and how I’d felt instantly connected to that extraordinary country, so deeply that I had to keep coming back.
Some of the children jumped up with joy, whooping and hollering at the thought of the trip. Some asked nervous questions, wondering whether Africa was just a big jungle, full of lions and tigers and people waving spears, not realizing that South Africa had modern and developed cities like Johannesburg, where we would be spending virtually all of our time, and even very wealthy metro - politan areas. Some were anxious about the trip itself—the thought of taking an eighteen- hour plane trip when most of them had never flown anywhere, the idea of being away from home for two weeks.
All of these concerns I completely understood. This is why I had wanted to have this meeting, so I could carefully answer all of their questions and those of their parents and family members who had come with them.
One of the children at that first meeting was LaToya Massie. La-Toya is just a little firecracker—there’s no other way to describe her. She weighs maybe two pounds wet, but her spirit is huge and so is her heart. Although she didn’t say much at that first meeting, she
was determined to make it through the application and interview process we had set up. And when we asked her why she wanted to go on this trip, she had her answer all ready.
“I just know this trip is going to make me a better person,” she
told us. “This is really a big chance for me, and I don’t want to miss
it.” She really understood the significance of traveling, and she was
excited, too, about the opportunity to serve.
LaToya’s mother was so supportive of her daughter. She was extremely
open with us about the fact that she and her family had had a very difficult life, one that had been wracked with poverty, affected by drugs, and marred by violence. LaToya’s life had been impacted negatively because of her mother’s many problems, yet her mother had survived and in many cases triumphed over them and had come out stronger on the other side. Most important, she was the type of mother that we all hope to be, one who wanted her child’s life to be better than her own. She told us that LaToya really deserved this trip because even after all she had been through, she was still such a positive, vibrant, and kind girl.
I appreciated her mother’s honesty, and I must admit that once I finished interviewing LaToya, I had pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to take her on this trip. In fact, kids like her are why I created the program in the first place: to offer special opportunities to kids who had faced many struggles but who wanted to take a chance at something different in order to succeed in life. I thought she would make the most of it—and she turned out to get even more out of the experience than I ever imagined. I can still see her
standing in the shantytown of Diepsloot, staring at the shacks that had been cobbled together from wood and scrap metal and watching the children playing in the muddy runoff from the single water spout. Despite the bright South African sun, the crowded rooms were almost completely dark, due to the lack of electricity and the fact that the shacks were often built with no windows. People depended on candles and kerosene lamps for both heat and light—
though many families didn’t have either. Despite the chilly weather, most had decided to wait until nighttime before using these precious and expensive commodities.
LaToya watched school- age children spending the day playing in the dust. The Brooklyn public school LaToya attended was not the best of the best, and she might not have always had the finest teachers or been in classes that had the greatest and newest materials. She did attend school regularly, and she did pretty well, though she knew she could do better. In South Africa, there is no public education, so now she was seeing children whose families couldn’t afford to pay for their kids’ school fees, let alone their books, pencils, notepads,
backpacks, and uniforms. She was seeing children with no toys or very used and broken toys, some children barely dressed and others with no shoes, children struggling with a level of poverty she had never even imagined.
LaToya had started the day joking and laughing with her friends. After all, we were in Africa, and the journey across the ocean had been exciting and fun. But as our visit through the shantytown continued, she, like the other Brooklyn children, became quieter and
quieter. And as we left the crowded warren of shacks to reach the broad, sunlit street, she began to cry.
“They don’t have anything,” she kept repeating. “They just don’t have anything.” As she took a big breath, she told me that all she wanted to do was help them.
“I want to help them and bring them some happiness,” she told me through
her tears. “But whatever I do will not be enough. I feel so bad and feel as if I have been selfish. I feel bad about the things that I complained about, the material things that I felt I deserved and got mad because I did not get. I am so sad.”
Though my heart broke for LaToya as she tried to take in the sights of extreme third- world poverty, I knew this was the beginning of one of the biggest learning curves of her young life. And I was so glad that we had incorporated time at the end of the day to debrief
one another and that I was able to take this walk with her. The personal time we had together allowed her to purge, letting all the thoughts that were jumbled up in her head pour out to me in a much- needed emotional release. And it allowed me the opportunity to speak with LaToya about the great strength of the South African people, about how proud a people they are and how they do not want our pity. But I explained that they appreciated our help and
would take advantage of every blessing we bestowed upon them. It was also important for me to tell her to pay special attention to how polite the South African people are, how sincere they are when they speak to you, how they look you directly in the eyes and give you all of their attention, and how much joy they have in their lives even though many have few material possessions.
The following day, LaToya helped give out the mattresses, blankets, propane gas, food, clothes, and toys we had bought for the families based on their needs. Instead of breaking, my heart rejoiced as this sensitive girl experienced, perhaps for the first time, the true joy of helping others. Though she wasn’t saying much as she handed the warm clothes, sacks of the food staple mealie- meal and beans, and packages of diapers to the grannies, older siblings, and mothers who were caring for the children she had wept over, LaToya glowed with a quiet sense of purpose. In fact, LaToya demonstrated the exact same emotional responses that I had the very first time I walked through an African shantytown. And like me, she responded with shock and sadness but quickly met the needs of the families with kindness and a fierce determination. Thirteen- year- old LaToya was taking her first few steps on the journey that had begun for me, too, in childhood: my search for a life in service. My own personal journey for change has been, in the words of motivational speaker and
writer Mack R. Douglas, a glorious romance and adventure.
I have been blessed to visit many places on my journey for change, across our nation and around the world. I have also been blessed to work with a wide variety of people: celebrities helping to promote UNICEF’s mission; grannies and orphaned and vulnerable
children in South Africa; executives of such philanthropic companies as Target, Liz Claiborne Inc., Dell, South African Airways, Jet Blue Airways, South African Tourism, and (RED); homeless families who lost everything due to Hurricane Katrina. I have spoken about
HIV/AIDS with desperate mothers, teenagers, and gay men as I worked the hotline for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I have helped to coordinate a campaign to raise awareness for the signs and prevention of child abuse and helped women moving from welfare to work
feel a greater sense of confidence through makeovers as part of my work with styleWORKS. I’ve worked with my next- door neighbors to raise funds and awareness for triple negative breast cancer after a neighborhood mom succumbed to the disease. Where I’ve seen a
need, I’ve tried to rise up to meet it. This mission has taken me not only on a journey across the globe but also on a voyage within, learning to understand myself as I struggled to understand people’s needs in this world.
I’ve come to believe that a life in service is one of the most extraordinary privileges we can know on this earth, whether we are taking half an hour a week to spoon soup at a food pantry or spending forty hours a week running a nonprofit. Over the years, as I have grown from college student to career woman to wife and mother, my life in service has changed with each life transition. Yet I have always found a touchstone in giving back, a kind of nourishment I have never experienced anywhere else. I love my husband, my children,
my family, and my friends, but I love, too, the global community I am blessed to be a part of and the family of like- minded spirits I’ve served, and served alongside.
So I have written this book to share my journey with you, hoping that you will find some of the same inspiration I have discovered along the way. I would also like to help smooth your path as you undertake your own journey for change. Not a day goes by that I don’t get one, two, or a dozen requests from people looking to volunteer or donate funds or start their own nonprofits. So many people want to give back to this world but don’t always know where to start. This book is my attempt to answer all the questions I hear every day and
share the skills and information I have been lucky enough to acquire.
This book is also my attempt to show you how easy it can be to lend a helping hand to communities and people who need us. It can be as simple as giving a different type of holiday gift: say, a donation to Heifer International, where you can spend as little as $20 to buy a flock of chickens or a cow for a needy family. Maybe you’ll join a giving circle, a group of people in your community that meets monthly and collects as little as $10 per month to donate to a cause you choose together. Perhaps you’ll organize a carnival or fashion show to benefit your kid’s school, or spend two hours a month reading to the elderly at the local senior center, or buy your kids a subscription to Time for Kids magazine and talk to them about becoming global citizens. Maybe there is an issue you are passionate about and you decide to advocate by passing out literature or attending a rally in protest. Or perhaps you will do something as simple as shop at Target instead of a competitor and exercise your
consumer power at a store that gives away $3 million a week—your money—to philanthropic causes nationwide.
Besides sharing my own story with you, I also want you to meet some of the other inspiring people I have encountered on my journey, people serving in all sorts of different ways, of all ages, at all levels of income and experience, and in all sorts of places. You will
meet a wide variety of extraordinary people, from the Brooklyn woman who collects new backpacks and school supplies for kids who would otherwise have to make do with hand- me- downs, to a popular TV journalist who uses her platform to effect change, to a
woman who works for a national breast cancer foundation but started her life of service as a Peace Corps volunteer. I will also offer you as much concrete information as I can about every type of volunteering and service. You will find out how you can become an active
volunteer in your local area, donate to an international relief organization, respond when catastrophe strikes, plan an event to raise money for a cause that you believe in, or check to see if a nonprofit organization is fiscally responsible before you make a donation.
To make it even easier for you to serve, at the end of this book I have included a resource guide filled with additional material to help you build your own village.
In other words, there are as many ways to be of service as there are people on this earth, and part of my purpose in writing this book is to help you discover your own personal vision of a life in service. I hope that it becomes a resource that you can turn to time and time again for information and for inspiration. Sometimes we do more, sometimes less, but always, we can do something, however small. And from this generosity, we too reap great rewards. After all, you serve because your service is needed, yes, but also because it feels so good. Joy is what will keep you coming back. It is a joy that will fill you up and change your life.
C h a p t e r 1
Each One, Teach One
Service is the rent we pay for living.
—MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been engaged in some kind of
service, activism, or volunteer activity, and that without a doubt is thanks to my mother, Gayle Fleming. My mother is an activist from way back—she must have gotten her interest in politics and world events from her mother, who was a voracious reader and writer,
and she clearly decided to pass both an interest in politics and a commitment to service down to me.
What I remember most from my childhood is not so much specific issues, concepts, or causes—those came later. Instead, I remember what it felt like to be exposed to service and to be taught about volunteering. There was the thrill of getting to go somewhere
with my mother, who would talk to me beforehand about the journey we were going to take for the day, whether it was a rally, a meeting with a nonprofit, or a door- to- door canvass for a candidate she was supporting. Though, like every child, I only really knew what it was like to be in my own family, I did have a sense that I was being exposed to politics and service in a way that was special and slightly different from other kids I knew. Now that I am an adult, this makes perfect sense to me because I have a mother who will get on a bike and ride from Washington, DC, to North Carolina to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness and funding, who will plan a yoga- thon to raise money for Darfur, who will enter a book- writing competition and ask her friends to sponsor her for each word written and then give the proceeds to an orphanage in Kenya, and who will plan a fund- raiser for a local food bank to help pay off their mortgage so that they can focus on putting more food on the shelves. Now, when I take my own children to a Darfur rally, or to New Orleans to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina either through advocacy events in the lower Ninth Ward or rebuilding houses in St. Bernard Parish, or to visit the friends they’ve made in South Africa’s shantytowns, I think of my own mother doing the same for me in our quiet Oakland neighborhood, and I feel that I, too, am carrying on the traditions of our family.
At any given moment, whether it was at breakfast, in the car, walking down the street, or at dinner, my mother and I could talk about service, volunteering, and the whole wide world. My mother found many ways to make it clear that we were citizens of the world,
even if I did not have a chance to personally see the whole world up close. She often reminded me that “everyone does not have the same blessings as we do, and because of this, it’s our absolute duty to give back.” One of her favorite quotes was Marian Wright Edelman’s saying “Service is the rent we pay for living.” It is a motto that I, too, have adopted because it resonates with me so deeply. As everyone who knows me will agree, I repeat these words more than any other quote, and it remains one of my favorite sayings, a touchstone for how I view my life. As a matter of fact, journalist Soledad O’Brien recently joked that Marian Wright Edelman should start collecting royalties from me based on the number of times I repeat these words as she introduced me at an awards dinner.
Our household wasn’t only service oriented; it was also very political. My mother and her friends could always be found discussing and debating local and national issues. What was the new mayor going to do to make people’s lives better? Was this new policy good or bad for our neighborhood, our people, our city? Where was our country headed, and what should we all be doing about it? Now when my husband, Chris, and I talk politics at the dinner table, I feel that same connection to my past, and I hope my daughters are learning the same lesson: Family is important, yes, but family doesn’t begin and end at the dinner table. We’re all part of a larger family, and if any one of us is hurting, then all of us are. If I get there before you do, I am obligated to bore a hole and pull you through— that’s what my mother lived, that’s what she taught me, and that’s what I try to teach my girls.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I did not always want to go everyplace my mother wanted to take me. I did not really want to join her at her meditation center no matter how much she tried to convince me that it would help to make me a better person. I can remember my mom had a friend she meditated with and did a lot of service work with who also had a teenage daughter, one of my classmates. Mai and I were very similar. When our mothers went overboard (as we saw it), we were able to hang together and commiserate.
As of this writing, my older daughter Lola is only seven and my little Zahra is only five, and I do pull them from pillar to post, as my mother did with me, in order to show them the many ways people live in this world and to instill a sense of service in them from a very
early age. Though I fully expect them to do their own share of teenage complaining eventually, I hope that they ultimately feel the way I do now: eternally grateful that my mother made me take part in both politics and service, because those were the experiences that helped to shape me into the woman I am today.
Certainly the issues that were closest to my mother’s heart are close to mine as well. My mother attended Mills College in Oakland, a very feminist place, so she was always concerned with the rights of women, as well as with every woman’s responsibility to make the world a better place. Mom was also deeply committed to civil rights and equality for African- Americans. Living in Oakland, she had the chance to become good friends with Black Panther leaders Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, so I remember us hanging out with them and their children while I was growing up.
Mainly, though, my mother was concerned with poverty, both here in the United States and around the world. She was and con-tinues to be a big supporter of RESULTS, an extraordinary NGO* that lobbies the U.S. government to allocate more resources for poor
countries and supports other groups that work directly for the poor. As a teenager, I remember going with her to lots of RESULTS fundraisers and advocacy events, where I learned more about how to effect change for the world’s poor, lessons that I use today in my
work with orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.
These days, my mother lives in Washington, DC, where she continues to come up with innovative ways to raise money and awareness for the causes most important to her. She’s still working on behalf of hunger issues both in the United States and abroad,
showing special concern for food pantries, which have become a mainstay not only for the poor but also for many middle- class people who’ve fallen on hard times and don’t have any kind of safety net to rely on due to our tough economic climate. As when I was growing
up, my mother is still part of a vital network of friends who share her interests, and she hangs out at DC spots like the bookstore café Busboys and Poets, where she can talk to her heart’s content about issues affecting our world, like the war in the Middle East, the genocide in Darfur, the economy, and how to help those who are hurting because of the mortgage crisis. Times and topics have changed since I was a child growing up in the liberal and very active cultures of Oakland and Berkeley, but one important constant has remained: If you
have an opportunity to help, then you must help.
On my father’s side, I come from a long line of educators with a close connection to Howard University, the historically black institution of higher learning in Washington, DC, established in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. My father’s uncle was for many years the head of Howard’s political science department. When it came time for me to go to college, Howard University was my first choice. Not only did I want to attend a school with a rich and illustrious legacy in terms of educating freed slaves, I was also aware of Howard’s prominent alumni, including such politicians and activists as David Dinkins, Vernon Jordan, and Andrew Young; author Toni Morrison; Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall; physician and medical pioneer Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr.; and entertainers (and sisters) Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. In fact, Howard University graduates more African- American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals than any other HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) institution in the United States.
I believe that by attending Howard, I was truly blessed in terms of my education. I had the great good luck to be taught by some of the most brilliant professors in the nation and to share my time with bright and ambitious classmates. To walk across such a historic campus every day filled me not only with pride but also with a sense of responsibility. Like a lot of graduates of HBCUs, I felt my ancestors’ legacy, and I wanted to make them and the people who graduated before me proud—especially those first graduates, who walked to
college, literally walked to Howard University, because they did not have the money for transportation, from cities all over the Deep South, seizing against incredible odds their first opportunity at higher education.
Another plus: Howard University offered me the chance to live in the nation’s capital. I remember during my first semester going down to the National Mall to visit the Capitol and sitting in on congressional hearings, listening to the people who make our laws arguing
and debating. I’ll be honest: I usually got lost in all of the back- and- forth and the long speeches made by some lawmakers. But as the child of an activist, I understood that the laws they were talking about would have a huge impact on people’s lives and even on my own life. I was thrilled to see that such life- changing debates were held in public and to be able to witness political debates by leaders who had been elected by ordinary people like my family and myself. Something about living in DC made politics more urgent—and somehow more real.
So although my major was in arts production management, I minored in political science. I even thought about going into politics for a time, though I eventually decided not to, and it’s a good thing, too; I don’t have the temperament for it. What I love about service is the hands- on aspect, working with people, especially children, who need my help; that excites me far more than sitting in some conference room hammering out policy. Plus I think I would be far too impatient—as in bite my arm off!—with the slow pace of creating policy when I can serve in a hands- on way on behalf of critical issues that need immediate attention. I understand, though, that politicians, administrators, and especially advocates are a crucial part of service. Howard was where I first began to understand that each of us has to find our own path, our own particular way to serve.
I was also conscious of the fact that Howard, like so many wellknown institutions of
higher learning—such as the University of Southern California, Yale, and Columbia, to name a few—was located smack- dab in the middle of a low- income, primarily African-
American neighborhood struggling with crime and drug abuse. I felt a sense of responsibility to serve where I lived and attended school. Since I was close to the Washington, DC, headquarters for RESULTS, the organization my mom had long supported, I ended
up working on its special events, volunteering to help set up rallies, street fairs, and even a huge gathering on the Mall. I also have fond memories of mentoring a little girl who lived in my neighborhood, a child who was being raised by her grandmother. To protect her
privacy, I’ll call her Jasmine M. Over the three years that I mentored her, Jasmine M. and I became very close, and I got a huge lesson in how far a little bit of time can go in someone else’s life.
I also saw that “it takes a village to raise a child,” since I soon had pretty much everyone I knew involved in mentoring Jasmine M. as well, including all my girlfriends and my then boyfriend. Whichever one of us was available would spend time with Jasmine M., sometimes just hanging out with her or maybe taking her to museums and exhibits. I had a weekend job as a concierge at the Embassy Suites Hotel, and soon Jasmine M. was sitting behind my desk for my entire shift, coloring or reading. After a while, she became everybody’s child. And isn’t that how it should be?
After graduation, I tried to stay in touch with her, and on my trips back to DC, I often took Jasmine M. out to lunch. Though I do not know where she is or what she is doing all these years later, I can only hope that I had a positive influence on her life. I know that she had an amazing influence on my life and I still think of her to this day.
Excerpted from If It Takes a Village, Build One by Malaak Compton-Rock Copyright © 2010 by Malaak Compton-Rock. Excerpted by permission.
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