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From a National Day of Service to the Promise of Citizen Power

It was a Martin Luther King Day like none other! Via videos, both Barack and Michelle Obama movingly called us to get out and make it a National Day of Service. I was thrilled, hearing of millions of Americans connecting in common purpose — many, for the first time. But I sense a surprising misfit between this call for “service” and the Obamas’ own work empowering communities, as well as what our hurting nation most needs.

Might this be the perfect moment to reflect on “service”?

My own hesitation about the service frame is simple: If I serve, someone else is being served. If I serve, I act, but the other — the beneficiary — does not. Making ourselves servants, we might also ignore our own legitimate needs as well as be tempted to imagine we already know what others’ needs are. In any case “service” seems to create two classes: the givers and the receivers.

And that’s a big problem. Doesn’t this dichotomy help blind us to the reality of the human condition that Martin Luther King, Jr. called us to see? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

”The strong communities we need in order to rebuild our nation, and our own lives, arise, I believe, only as we focus on Dr. King’s “network of mutuality.”

Through this lens, we realize that in serving others we serve ourselves. And that’s good: all self-interest is relational. A study of over three thousand people found a “helpers’ high,” with fully 95 percent of volunteers reporting they feel better emotionally and physically — with more energy and serenity — after helping others.

But these rewards may be the thinnest layer of our “receiving.” For through the lens of “networks of mutuality,” we realize that the quality of our lives depends on the liberation of talents* of all other members of our communities. Just think for a moment of the doctors, teachers, and scientists lost to America today because almost a fifth of our children are growing in life-stunting poverty. A recent study found that childhood poverty costs our country yearly about $500 billion; and dollars capture but a fraction of the real value of which we’re robbing ourselves.

The service frame also fails to capture the deeper, almost universal human need for efficacy, for power. In the service mode it’s easy to forget that the recipients of our acts have just as great a need for efficacy — including the need to give — as we do. But if we shift the frame to one of co-creating power — problem-solving power — much changes. Most important, we perceive those we want to “help” as key to the solution.

Both Michelle and Barack were part of community organizing networks grounded in these truths. In the 1980s Barack led one of the (now) forty-five affiliate groups of the Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation network. Gamaliel defines its philosophy of “civic participation” as enabling all to “participate in shaping the community in which they live.” The Gamaliel network operates in seventeen states and in three provinces of South Africa — all supporting grassroots leaders in low-income communities. They do not commonly use the term “service.

”This ecumenical congregation-based network is just one of a half dozen nationally that involve roughly three million Americans, all working on foundational questions of democracy — from school reform to health care to immigration policy. One, for example,Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, comprising sixty-five congregations and other organization affiliates — and linked with the national Industrial Areas Foundation network — is widely credited as among the most powerful forces moving Massachusetts closer than just about any other state to universal health coverage.

Gamaliel calls its approach a “practice of hope,” and speaks of “organizing hope” as its goal. I love that. But the practice of hope you can’t plug into through one or even several days of service. It rests on relationships of trust and skill built over time — relationships of “mutuality.

”Unfortunately, focusing just on calls for service can help to keep these and similar citizen empowerment networks invisible to most Americans. Because they are not widely known and appreciated as examples of “living democracy,” it’s possible for fear-driven misrepresentations easily to spread. Just google “Gamaliel,” and you’ll see what I mean.

The Obamas have lived and taught the truth to which Dr. King’s words call us. So let us hold them and ourselves to what they and we know — that our real task is engagement in building strong communities because we do indeed live within “a single garment of destiny.” This is the work of hope.

Frances Moore Lappe, of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, is the author or co-author of sixteen books, including Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.

*The “liberation of talents,” in the words of political philosopher Harry Boyte, is the very essence of freedom.

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