Volunteering: A front-line lesson

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Something happened to me during my weekly volunteering gig last Thursday: I was leading a parenting class for a group of young adults who are having trouble with their kids (which, frankly, is something every parent encounters to some degree at some point, but I digress).

A mother mentioned that she was struggling to know when and how to draw the line in buying her son basketball shoes. She worried that depriving him of sneakers would convey to him that she doesn't love him enough. A father offered that society had helped build up a false sense of identity around young black men and their shoes.

And here's where I come in: I am white, and every student in the class in African American.

The father looked at me and said, politely, "I'm sorry, John, I don't mean to imply anything but back in 1970s we [black people] couldn't buy houses or nice cars like white people could. All we could afford were clothes. So that became our identity and it's continued to today for a lot of black people."

What ensured was a lively discussion of needs versus wants, marketing, and how parents might love and support children while still teaching them to work for what they want. I continued to lead the class and continued to offer valuable insights. As happens every week, I learned quite a bit from the students and I think they learned something from me.

The issue of my "whiteness" had come and gone in one (very valid) observation from a student. Nobody demanded that I explain how I felt I could relate to the African American community (in so many important ways, I will never understand their challenges) or why I was qualified to lead the class.

This experience, to me, illustrated a key tenet of volunteering: By volunteering our time to help others - without preconceptions, judgment or worrying about our differences - all of us can make a contribution.

To find a way to make yours, visit Create The Good today.

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