Week 2: Vermont

 

PHOTO: Joined by Katherine, Kristin and Graham delivering produce to the food bank that was grown and harvested by Change the World Kids.

 

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead[1]

My mind and heart are still spinning after a memorable week with a group of inspiring teenagers in the Upper Valley of Vermont.

The group, Change the World Kids, is run by high school and middle school students. Behind a fluid core and a single adult facilitator, they have grown in 15 years from six teen members to 60, achieved 501(c)(3) status, and completed meaningful projects on three continents.

Each year the group churns out 10,000 service hours – in their spare time. This is a group with priorities and values we should all follow. Just take Asa, a senior who may graduate as her school’s valedictorian but gets far more joy from the class period she spends assisting a 21-year-old learner with Down’s Syndrome.

Classmate Reed says, “I’ve made friends and helped people. The feeling you get when someone thanks you for a job you did on your own time is great. We want to help people, and thank yous are the greatest gift from people you help.”

In addition to delivering a smorgasbord of local service work – which includes farming and harvesting vegetables to supply 100 pounds of food per week to the hungry, as well as recently building a root cellar to preserve said food throughout the winter  – they are now in the eighth year of a remarkable relationship with Costa Rica called Bosque para Siempre (the forever forest). After the CTWK founders noticed that migratory birds in Vermont were suffering from deforestation in the corresponding Central American winter feeding habitat, they created an initiative that sees the group raise money to buy, preserve and reforest land in the critical area. Every summer the group sends around two dozen young folks to volunteer for two weeks, connecting them to the expansive, intertwining Atlantic ecosystem.

Sophie, a member for five years and now one of its leaders, speaks of “the satisfaction you get from what many people would call an adult job – you mature a lot faster and gain a greater perspective on what’s really important.”

Change the World Kids produce many great services, and it’s through the process itself that they are empowered and inextricably connected to both the environment and humanity. During the week I spent time with CTWK members to develop their website, their social media campaign and their fundraising efforts; I helped run their stall at a local art fair; I worked with their facilitator to construct the presentation for their annual gala; and I scripted and crafted this video to promote their great work.

But it was while sweating and picking arugula, tomatoes, beans and cauliflower, which we then transported to the food bank, that the deepest element of meaning hit me. The tiniest bit of lettuce on every sandwich or in every salad is planted, cultivated and harvested by someone wiping the sweat from their brow with dirt-entrenched fingers. I read this interconnectedness sentiment a million times, but it only resonated when I became a part of the process.

***

Jonathan Haidt[2] argues that Western morality has taken a dramatic recent shift: Where the ancients believed in pursuing virtue, we now think of morality as the choices you make in a few specific, difficult situations. So in a week, you may only have a few important moral choices to make (whether to return a wallet, cheat on taxes, etc.), and whatever you choose will determine if you’re a good person.

Haidt outlines two problems with our current approach. First, it tends to assume “a moral person” is someone who generally chooses others’ interests over their own, creating the paradox where acting against your self-interest is in your self-interest. Second, it takes more than our conscious (rational) minds to be moral – he gives the example of someone believing in the arguments for vegetarianism, but only coming to despise the taste of meat once they watch animals get slaughtered and then internalize a feeling of disgust. Our unconscious minds must also be motivated if we are to pursue “goodness” as human beings. One has to train the unconscious mind through repetition and conscious development of habits, Haidt writes, according to a tradition spanning Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin.

I’m convinced there is an element of learning how to build community, and of learning agape love, that must see reason intertwine with experience and virtuous pursuit. City Year London’s James Probert introduced me to this line from E.M. Forster[3]: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Indeed, we must connect in order to transcend: Connect reason with emotion, connect our actions with their impact, and connect our present self across time, in order to welcome “them” into “us.”

If ever there were a group of people who embodied the truth of this path, it is the Change the World Kids – the group delivers both quantity and quality service behind the sheer, raw, tireless idealism that for some reason causes young people to be pigeonholed as diluted and naïve. In this way, they just might be living up to their own lofty name.

 

 What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!

 


[1] Margaret Mead, in “And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker (1992), eds. Ashton Applewhite, Tripp Evans, and Andrew Frothingham. According to Wikiquote, this is popularly attributed to Mead but is sometimes disputed: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Mead

[2] Jonathan Haidt (2006) “The Happiness Hypothesis.” London: Arrow Books.

[3] E.M. Forster (1910) “Howards End.” Accessed from Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation at < http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext01/hoend10h.htm>.

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