To Truly Help Communities, We Need to Become a Part of Them

February 15, 2018
By Rahiel Alemu, City Impact Manager

I’ve discovered that “helping” is not as simple as it sounds. It takes a lot more than just “showing up” to make the kind of impact that is actually needed in a community.

I have always been passionate about nonprofit work, and have dedicated my career to the nonprofit sector. Part of what fulfills and drives this passion is my background and my desire to pay it forward.

Let me take you back twenty years ago when Ethiopia instituted the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. It’s a lottery system with a prize of a life-changing opportunity: a plane ticket and green card to America. With its unveiling, tens of thousands of people applied.

By a rare draw of luck, my family was selected.

My mother, sister, and I uprooted and subsequently transformed our lives. Since coming to the United States, I’ve been able to live a life filled with dreams and freedoms Ethiopia could never have given me.

Rahiel’s 1st Birthday

Because of that, I have always felt a sense of obligation and duty to redeem the opportunity I was given — and helping others has been my way of paying it forward.

But, as I soon discovered, helping others is not as simple as it sounds – at least, not if you want to have a real impact.

But, as I soon discovered, helping others is not as simple as it sounds – at least, not if you want to have a real impact.

Early on, I took advantage of volunteering opportunities, and not long after, I noticed an imbalance between the impact of volunteers and the needs of the community.

This compelled me to question the ethos of service or a mission to “do good.” In particular, I became critical of the effectiveness of our impact because of the ephemeral nature of volunteering in communities that are not our own.

Part of the problem I observed is that volunteers don’t develop relationships and get to know the complexities of the community or neighborhood, so in reality they haven’t learned what help is truly needed. It is not focused on the partnership, but instead maintains a distinction between the “us and them” where the “us” goes out to help and fix the “them” from which they come back and feel good.

And I was just as guilty of this.

Rahiel in Tanzania

For a summer, I conducted a service project in Moshi, Tanzania helping a local nonprofit launch their social support program for battered women. I didn’t speak Swahili and since most of the clients were from the rural areas, they didn’t speak English. I also wasn’t familiar with the political and social issues that continually stalled my program. So instead of spearheading this new program, I instead had to immerse myself in the culture, learn the language, and break down those barriers to develop a deeper understanding of the people I wanted to help.

Afterwards I realized that the value of volunteering alone was not enough.

In my case, it wasn’t sufficient in relating or aligning my work with the needs of my community partner and the community itself. I learned service shouldn’t be about helping the community, but about how to be a part of the community as well.

I learned service shouldn’t be about helping the community, but about how to be a part of the community as well.

And this is what excites me about being a staff member of The Mission Continues! Our goal is to empower veterans to reintegrate into civilian life through serving in their own communities – connecting with service-minded civilians and veterans while making a sustainable impact.

My job is to figure out how I can integrate the skills of our veterans with the needs of the community. This time my goal – and the goal of the organization – was to make an impact from within, not from the outside. This meant we needed to understand community needs, and work alongside them and get the buy-in that would make our impact truly valuable.

Like me, the veterans I work alongside are looking to pay it forward. And like me, we’ve experienced times when it appeared our efforts hadn’t been as fruitful or as helpful as we had intended. This is our opportunity to help others in a meaningful way.

My first test at this was when I launched the New Orleans 1st Service Platoon, because I wasn’t personally familiar with the ongoing issues of New Orleans.

With any launch of a service platoon is the guiding mission, dubbed Operation. The Operation is the focus area of the service platoon and it is crafted by understanding and tackling the important, tough issues facing the community – issues like blight, homelessness, lack of fresh food, lack of green spaces, and more.

The Mission Continues volunteer service project for the 9/11 National Day of Service, 2017

So what did I do? I did my research and actually spent time meeting with community leaders, local nonprofits and veterans to define the Operation together, so that everyone had a voice from the outset. This time around, I tried to be a part of the community.

Our service platoon supports the local nonprofits and community leaders invested in revitalizing and empowering the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

I found this model of service is not only seamless but a unifying force.

I found this model of service is not only seamless but a unifying force. This is the approach we are using in cities across the country.

We are supporting a community-led effort, and I can see this in action in other service platoons across the country where veterans work with the community to accomplish a shared mission.

 

Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and Twitter.