Beyond Room 119

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Exploring the principle of charity

The idea of the “principle of charity” has been simmering in my brain since I first learned about it. This notion of seeking to understand a view at its best point seems to be a very wise way to live life, though it requires a bit of work in transforming our cognitions. It first requires us to recognize that humans aren’t perfect. We convey ideas and thoughts in ways that are twisted, convoluted, and imperfect. Instead of allowing ourselves to get lost in these imperfections, the principle of charity demands that we put forth the extra effort to go beyond hearing what is said and towards understanding what is meant. If we can assume that the people around us are coming to the table from the perspective of the principle of charity, it makes it easier to engage in dialogue and discussion. It allows us to trust that those around us will give us both the benefit of the doubt and the room to express our ideas, although it may be in an imperfect way.

The principle of charity, then, sounds like a great concept to try to include in our lives as we go about our conversations, relationships, and daily life. But how does that connect to our work as professionals? How are we to reconcile providing the benefit of the doubt with holding others accountable and maintaining professional rigor? After all, fields such as science, programming, or research aren’t about feelings or intentions; they are about results.

It’s important to recognize that while the principle of charity does have far-reaching potential, it does have its place, which is not in a scientific lab. And yet, that doesn’t diminish its value or importance. Science is only one part of a much larger world, and it is entirely possible to be an inquisitive and focused scholar in other fields while still utilizing the principle of charity.

The “how” of this is a bit more vague, and it would look different within each field and for every individual. One common thread, however, would be the framework through which we approach every professional interaction, whether it is with a student, colleague, client, or supervisor. This principle demands that we look beyond each individual interaction and listen to the motivation of the other person. We must pause and consider the “why” behind hurtful decisions, unclear comments, and difficult dialogue. Essentially, it asks us to ignore the idea that we can completely separate work from one’s personal life and recognize instead that each of us has our own set of experiences that have shaped us into the people we are today. Those experiences have led each of us along our paths and are inextricably connected to our work as professionals. The principle of charity asks us to remember this and to view the actions of others from a framework that incorporates an understanding of this. Once we have achieved that, we can engage in dialogue at a deeper level of understanding.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about the idea of self-actualization, which is the process by which an individual moves from who they are at the present moment to who they are truly capable of being. We see a similar distinction present in the principle of charity as well. As we see beyond the actual reality and look towards the ideal, we help those around us to do the same. In doing so, we shrink the gap between the two while becoming better suited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.


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Learning from history

One of the readings for class this week examined the history of the segregation of black students at Oberlin College after the Reconstruction period. The sequence of events at Oberlin was not what I had expected, largely because in a time when it was illegal for Blacks to learn to read or write in the South, Oberlin College became the only college to admit students “irrespective of color” (Waite, 2001, p. 344). However, after Reconstruction, a number of events occurred that showed a stark departure from this welcoming attitude and towards marked segregation.

Two details within the article especially resonated with me. The first piece centers around segregation in the campus dining hall. In 1882, when two white students refused to sit with black students, the matron of the dining room created a “separate but equal” table for black students. This decision prompted heated discussion from white and black students alike, alumni, and the people within the town. Numerous individuals wrote letters and editorials, and many were concerned about this idea of a “color line” at Oberlin. The president of the university eventually declared that a separate table for black students was not allowed. Though it is important to note that the president realized he could not change students’ attitudes towards black students, he felt strongly enough to enact policies that provided some modicum of protection.

Less than a decade later, The Gazette, a Cleveland-based newspaper, reported that two black students had seats separate from the rest of the students and were “forced to sit in a corner with the matron’s family” (Waite, 2001, p. 356). However, unlike the previous instance where students and citizens alike rose up in protest, these students accepted this as the way of life and sat apart.

The other part of the article that stood out to me was the attitude of the president of the college, Henry Churchill King, during this time. King did not explicitly enact segregationist policies, as was done at Dartmouth and New Jersey College. Yet, he hastened segregation through a different, but equally effective means: inaction. For example, he chose not to penalize literary societies that discriminated against the black students, and instead said that the students’ attitudes towards their black peers were “representative of the attitude of the whole north towards the question” (Waite, 2001, p. 360). The issue, according to King, encompassed something much larger than just Oberlin, and as a result, students could not be faulted for their attitudes. How, and perhaps more importantly, why should the college attempt to change that?

When we study history, it is easy to use the sands of time to obscure its importance. “This happened nearly a century and a half ago,” one might say. “What does it matter today?” It is true that black students today are not forced to sit at a separate table and that there has been much progress made in this area of civil rights. However, as long as humans choose to categorize ourselves – whether by gender, race, sexuality, religion, or classifications that are yet to come – there will always be an “other.” And as long as that other exists, there will always be the option to marginalize, discriminate against, and dehumanize the individuals within that group. The longer we allow this discrimination to continue, the more the marginalized group will internalize it, give up, and accept it as a way of life, as the students did at Oberlin in 1891.

As an aspiring student affairs professional, what do the issues of Oberlin college in the nineteenth century matter to me? Students at the college level are focused on creating, understanding, and deepening their identity. I strongly believe they have the right to feel safe and secure in their environment as they do so. It’s important for me to remember that acts of discrimination come in all sizes, and oftentimes the micro-aggressions have just as much impact than the larger-scale actions. By choosing inaction, President King sent a deafening loud message to the students of Oberlin, the townspeople, and the world at large, who had been observing the “color experiment” at Oberlin with a watchful eye. On a personal level, I need to continue to hold myself accountable about how I think about the divisions in the world around me. When I react strongly regarding an issue, I need to ask myself where that reaction is coming from. Is it coming from a sense of personal discomfort? An unrecognized bias? From a lack of knowledge or understanding? By holding myself accountable to my own thoughts and perceptions, I will be better equipped to act in a way that is welcoming and inclusive to all, and I will be better able to advocate for and support the rights of the groups that do not have the freedom to express themselves freely.

America was founded on the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, liberty often falls victim to the middle-child syndrome, as we tend to forget about it. Merriam Webster defines liberty as “freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.” Regardless of the divisions between us, all people deserve that freedom from arbitrary control and discrimination. That has been one of the goals of our country since its inception, and we must continue to keep that foundation strong.

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Pushing boundaries

There are some days that I wake up to and wonder, “How did I get here?” Not in an existential, let’s find the meaning of life kind of way (though that does happen too), but more often, that question is accompanied by a sense of wonder. Amazement. And most frequently, with incredible gratitude.

I’ll be honest. I have a good life. No, that’s an understatement. I have a pretty fabulous life. It doesn’t often have bells and whistles, but it has what I need, what I want, and what I value: meaningful relationships, the opportunities to work towards my dreams, the freedoms to pursue what I care about, and the space and security to work on becoming the best version of myself.

It’s this last point that I’ve come to appreciate the most in the last few months, and there have been some specific people and events that have pushed (er, I mean, helped) me closer to closing the gap between who I am and who I’m meant to me.

I consider myself an independent person. That was how I was raised, that was how I grew up, and that’s a big reason that I’ve been able to get to where I am now. It’s not inherently a bad trait, but as with most things in life, it requires balance. Too much leads to isolation, whereas too little creates dependence and erases the self. Unfortunately, we can’t go into a science lab and put independence on a balance with interdependence on the other side and adjust it, Goldilocks style, until it looks just right. That’d be too easy.

Instead, we have to rely on the people in our lives to help us figure out what that looks like. Relationships and trust are forged through embracing those awkward moments, fighting past the sharp edges, and overcoming challenges together. Part of it requires knowing when to ask for help and when to seek support. One thing I’ve had to learn is that doing so doesn’t make us weaker, but it instead strengthens us. It shows that we are wise enough to know when we aren’t enough and when we can’t do it alone. Truly, it’s only through recognizing those limitations that we can successfully go past them.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a good number of these kinds of experiences over the last few weeks and months. Today, though, I had another one that’s resonating with me in a different way, and one of the best parts about it is that I doubt the people who were involved even realized how much I’ve come to appreciate and value them.

A few months ago, I decided to run my first marathon. There was a lot that went into that decision, but suffice it to say that I thought it out and realized I had enough compelling personal reasons to face this challenge. I’ve been a runner since my freshman year of college and I’ve run a number of half-marathons, but I’d never attempted to conquer this particular beast.

The idea of running – and training for – a marathon scared me a bit at first. It’s intense, a lot of mileage, and requires a pretty high level of emotional and mental determination and toughness. This was one of those instances where I realized that I had a goal that was important to me, and I couldn’t do it alone. So, I joined a training group through my local running store.

And goodness gracious, it was love at first sight. I’ve had friends who are runners, but I’ve never been part of a running community. I may be biased, but runners are the best kind of people. Collectively, they’re easygoing, they see life from a different perspective, they’re friendly and welcoming, and I could go on and on. Most importantly, runners get it. While other people think you may be crazy to wake up early for a run, a runner understands why you choose to rise with (or before) the sun.

This community, mostly made of experienced marathoners who have been together for a number of years, has been fun from the beginning, and they’ve been beyond welcoming to me. They get where I’m coming from, they see where I want to be, and they have the experience to know how to help provide that bridge between the two. The last six weeks or so, our long runs haven’t been too terribly long, and I’ve been comfortable with the distance. Today was a different story. This morning’s run was going to be the farthest I’d ever run in my life. I knew I could do it; it was more a matter of if I would. I was a bit nervous, but the biggest feeling when my alarm went off this morning was excitement. This was a chance to push myself beyond my boundaries, to challenge myself, to grow. I just had to actually make it through 15 miles to do so. Easy, right?

I told my team leader the night before about my “milestone,” and he mentioned it to the rest of the group before we headed out. Throughout the whole run, I didn’t feel any “extra” support or care because of Randy’s announcement. The camaraderie and support that was there was incredible though, and the best part is, this is the baseline for these people. They genuinely care about the people in our group. It’s a tad difficult for me to open up and to build meaningful relationships with people, but with the Roo Crew (which is our fabulous team name), it’s natural.

So did I run the 15 miles today? Yes, and it felt damn good. Do I feel proud of that? Of course.

But is that the biggest reason for the smile on my face right now?

Not a chance.

That smile is coming from the conversation I had with Susan about both of us being rained out of an outdoor show on two different nights. From talking with Kevin about his journey from physical therapy to computer programming. From hearing a bit more about Hope’s background and the people in her life. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of time for conversation in a fifteen mile run, so the list goes on and on.

So that smile? It’s coming from the people. The support. The connections. It’s coming from the relationships. And in the end, I think that’s what matters.

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Mutuality: Moving from service to partnership

My parents were very intentional about instilling the importance of service in me from a young age. Because of this, the notion of “giving back” has always been part of my consciousness, and during my undergraduate career, I tried to put this in action through various ways: service trips to Mexico, volunteering at a home for the elderly, tutoring children, and so on. I did these activities because I wanted to and I enjoyed them, but I also felt that because I had been given so many opportunities, it was only right to use them to help those around me. This is not a “wrong” motivation by any means, but in looking back, I have realized that my understanding of the meaning of these activities had not quite penetrated the complexities of what true service is.

If one were to then fast forward a few years after my college graduation, they would find me in working in human resources at a public university. About a month after I began this job, I felt that familiar tug towards service and found a program through the local YMCA that focused on improving literacy skills with students living in low-income housing areas. “Perfect!” I thought. “I’ve taught lower elementary school and I love kids – what a great service opportunity!” Within a few weeks, I was paired with a first-grade boy with on-again, off-again motivation, who was slightly behind level in reading, and had a perfectly off-center, genuine smile.

I worked with Jake (name changed) every week for a year. The structure of our time together was always the same: read and discuss a book, work on a specific literacy skill, and then play a game together. For the first month or so, I struggled with the development of this relationship. Jake was not an effusive, happy-go-lucky six-year-old, but was instead much more reflective, quiet, and slow to warm. It took about six weeks for me to get my first smile from him, and until that point, I did not know if he actually enjoyed any of our time together.

In the beginning, I also struggled with the framework of this experience. I didn’t want to be seen by Jake’s family as some interfering outside do-gooder who came into a situation with the idea that she would “fix” everything that had gone wrong. I wanted to help Jake, but I recognized that I wasn’t the only person who was invested in his education and in his life. My fear was that his family and his community would misinterpret my motivation and view our mentoring relationship from that angle instead.

As the year continued, the Y created opportunities for mentors to build relationships with the families, and I met Jake’s mother, Ebony, and his second-grade brother. I had the opportunity to hear parts of his mother’s story, learn about her current journey in college and her desire to enter law school, and understand a bit more of how she came to be at her current chapter in life. Over time, Jake and I, along with his brother and his brother’s mentor, also began to do activities together outside of our mentoring hour. We went to places such as Marbles Kid Museum, story hour at the library, and Wendy’s (I have never seen a Frosty disappear so quickly in my life!).

Through these interactions, my relationship with Jake, his family, and the program itself deepened into something much more meaningful. Somewhere along the way, my fear of being negatively perceived disappeared. I went from feeling like an outsider to having the privilege to share in a small piece of Ebony’s family. I did not have the words to explain this in a more intellectual sense until I learned about the concept of mutuality in service. Mutuality is the belief that service is a two-way relationship where all parties both give and receive (Rhoads, 1997, p. 127). Service that lacks mutuality falls away from service and towards charity. While both charity and mutuality are important and have their place in the world, recognizing that different situations call for distinct approaches is vital. My experience with Jake and this program was one such instance that called for mutuality much more than charity. Meaningful service must reflect what the other actually desires, values, and needs, and true partnership is often the best means to achieve this (Rhoads, 1997, p. 130). This program, and my experience with it, provides a concrete example of service from a perspective of mutuality.

Understanding this concept of mutuality and being able to apply the idea of partnership in service to one of my own experiences has deepened my understanding and appreciation of service, even over the course of just a few weeks. Pasque and Harris write, “We cannot know what we do not know, so we must continue to teach and learn” (2013, p. 2). By continuing to teach where I am able to and by seeking out opportunities to learn from others in all other areas, I believe that I will be challenged, continue to grow, and will be able to use my gifts to serve with those around me in a meaningful way.

Jake drew this when I asked what he wanted to do together at the end of our session. He's on the left, I'm on the right, and there's a football in between us.

Jake drew this when I asked what he wanted to do together at the end of our session. He’s on the left, I’m on the right, and we’re playing football.