Engaging with Contradiction by Engaging with Community

It’s the first seriously snowy day of winter in the Twin Cities. (Believe it or not, it doesn’t snow continuously in Minnesota.) Up bright and early this Saturday morning, a gaggle of students hops into a van and crosses the river, from St. Paul to Minneapolis. We’re going to learn about the role of the arts in social change.

The students are part of Macalester College’s Lives of Commitment program, a joint project of the Civic Engagement Center and the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. Lives of Commitment brings together thirty first-year students for weekly volunteering in partnership with immigrant and refugee tutoring organizations. The program complements—and complicates—this partnership with reflection groups, retreats, and day trips like this one, all organized around questions of vocation and ethics. Our destination this morning is the Northland Poster Collective, a center created for and by artist-activists. For nearly thirty years, the Collective has produced joyful, intelligent artwork to spread the community’s messages about social justice.

At Northland, artist Ricardo Levins Morales shares a favorite poster with us. The poster’s text begins simply: “If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day.” Then the writing takes a curious turn. “If you teach me to fish, you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development.” (As some say in Minnesota, oh dear!) “But if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers, and we will fashion our own solution.” The students chuckle, and Ricardo pauses to turn up the heat in the chilly storeroom. He explains why he appreciates the piece. “It takes that twist to show that the original conclusion—‘if you teach me to fish, you feed me for a lifetime’—was patronizing as hell,” he says. The room is silent for a moment. Then students nod, several in strenuous agreement.

This is precisely the kind of realization that the Lives of Commitment program fosters: that civic engagement projects should strive for mutual accountability and transformation rather than for “top-down” service from college to community. Macalester students come from widely divergent backgrounds and often have very different approaches to civic work. But whatever our backgrounds, we students have a lot of privilege to account for as we build community partnerships. Lives of Commitment creates a space for us to wrestle with the tensions between privilege and marginalization, similarity and difference.

In the program, students find structured opportunities to reflect on their own socioeconomic backgrounds and closely connected identities such as race and nationality. Integral to this process are the strong relationships the program fosters among students and between students and partner communities. As a privileged person, I’m often more comfortable engaging economic injustice and racism only in my “head space,” simultaneously divorcing it from the life I lead. Because Lives of Commitment connects students more deeply with community partners—and with one another—our discussions happen in “heart space” as well. We learn to approach community partnerships with an eye toward mutual exchange and with openness to reformulating our own personal and political commitments.

Ricardo’s admonition about being “patronizing,” and its implicit invitation to think honestly about where I’m coming from, linger in my mind as I continue my civic engagement work beyond the program. My classmates and I know there isn’t one perfect way to be or act. But thanks to our sustained engagement with one another and with the community, we can keep asking questions and taking risks. By engaging personally with activists, community members, and other students, I have come to understand that living a “life of commitment” requires my commitment to the lives and voices of others. 

David Seitz is a junior majoring in political science and minoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Macalester College.

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