Being of Service Starts by Asking Why You Serve

In Time’s Essay called Doing Good Badly Nancy Gibbs writes “One’s duty in the face of disaster is not just to be kind but to be sensible.”  Too many volunteers, inspired to help in Haiti, she says, show up unprepared and end up having to be taken care of rather than providing assistance.  What good are as ambassadors of service by  showing up unprepared for the challenges of a natural disaster, with no understanding of the Haitian culture, hoping that we can help without serious guidance and professional support? Reading this editorial triggered my natural soap box of sorts.

The impulse to share that which has transformed and saved us is a precious one, one that we need in our culture. What would be the good of hording, be it ideas, money, resources?  However, as we share and serve, we have to be aware of what motivates us at a very deep level. What complicated interweaving of motivators (both conscious and unconscious) motivate us to try to help or to share or to serve?

I worked as a volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit organization that brought American groups to provide building assistance (physical and financial) in the slums of Mexico. Many volunteer groups came each week and each group brought the money to finance a home, money they had raised in their home towns. They then worked with a group of Mexican volunteers and community members needing homes to do the construction together–working with a community foreman and a translator. Amazing transformations took place in this work– on all sides– and many people living in slums with no housing at all ended up with cinder block and cement homes. But, over and over again, it was apparent, that my job, and that of a number of other sharing the job,  was to manage and support the groups as they went through intense culture shock, experienced extreme poverty, difficult physical labor, and struggled with the way that their own belief system came up against that of the community they had cometo Mexico to serve (& sometimes to save). “I came to serve and have been served.”

This was where the spiritual transformation happened– in those who saw that they could only be responsible for their own spiritual transformation, though many of the groups came with the notion that they would save the community members they were coming to serve. It is of service to provide funding and labor to construct homes in the slums. But it is important to note, that it requires an infrastructure of support, especially, but not exclusively, when two drastically different cultures meet. (And, as an important side note: anytime two people come together, to some degree, there are two culture meeting. The implication being: we need to consider our motives as service providers no matter who we serve).

Additionally, I have to ask, why do we want to travel around the globe to be of service? There are many good answers to this, ones that are of true service.  But, my point is, we need to have asked these questions and know our answers.

Being of real service starts with knowing why we serve. If we don’t know, we cannot serve. We will be drawn into power struggle and inadvertently or not, we may end up trying to push something onto someone who does not need it. Or we may try to help in our way without any regard for issues of cultural, religious, sensitivities. (Think of the horror stories we all know of missionary outreach gone wrong).

In an article I wrote for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy,  (click here to read original article), I created a list of five guiding questions for Yoga professionals, based on education scholar Sonia Nieto’s principles of creating multicultural learning communities.  I have restructured these here to fit this conversation. In crafting these, I hope to provide broad questions to help structure systems and more specific questions to use in  holding ourselves and our communities accountable to a more equitable, multicultural, spacious, and diverse culture around service.

1. Is this approach enabling the experience to be actively constructed? Or is it being constructed by one side (only the service provider)?
2. Is this approach/setting honoring, giving space to, and building on the experiences that those being served have brought with them? And how does one go about answering this question? Have you enlisted members and experts of the community you wish to serve to advise you and to help you understand how to build this kind of space?

3. Is there space for discussion and sharing about how individuals learn/live and what approaches to learning
serve them best? And have you insured that the necessary support people are involved (translators, therapists, etc)?

4. How is the cultural and historical context in which we are serving playing a role in the process we are engaged in together? (Have you read up on the history of the culture and the situation? Do you understand yourself & your cultural and historical background in relation to that?)

5. What is the social environment of this group or relationship? Of the teachers/leaders/service providers involved? Of
those being served? And what is the culture of the organization? In what ways are these cultures similar and in what ways are they different?

Below are a few  books that are great reads for anyone in any service field or involved in any service project.  By no means exhaustive and a somewhat broad spectrum of perspectives, all of these offer something different to this conversation and to the work of understanding the difference brought to any shared,  structured and controlled space. A number of these relate to teaching environments and others to issue that come up in particular with trauma and/or body centered practices.

Two that I highly recommend and have annotated are:

Guggenbuehl-Craig (1971). Power and the helping professions. Spring Publications: Texas.

This work looks at issues related to power in the helping professions, specifically in the professions of doctor, teacher, social worker, priest, and psychotherapist. The main tenet of the book is to critically examine ways in which individuals working in these, and related, professions may become more aware of how it is that being in these professions creates an inherent hierarchy in which imbalances of power are inevitable.

Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities. Teachers College Press, New York.

Nieto’s book focuses on ways in which learning exists in a social context. She explores multicultural education by pushing the limits of the generic understanding of this term to include radical suggestions for critical pedagogy and transformation of student teacher relationship in the classroom.

Here are some others, many of which offer an academic perspective on more specific issues, or are stories that address issues related to community, power, and transformation:

Adams, M., Bell, L.A., & Griffin, P. (Ed.) (1997). Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. New York & London: Routledge.

Belenky, K.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.T. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers

Belknap, R.A. (2002). Sense of self: Voices of separation and connection in women who have experienced abuse. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, Vol. 33 (4), pp. 139-153.

Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us. New York: Vintage Books.

Cohen, R. (2005). Bad Yoga Pose. In The New York Times Magazine (August 21,2005, Section 6, Column 3, p. 21).

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Gatens, M. (1999). Power, bodies and difference. In Shildrick, M. & Price, J., p. 227-234, Feminist theory and the body: A reader. New York: Routledge.

Kadi, J. (1996). Thinking Class: Sketches from a cultural worker. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Grost, J.d. (1994). Eating Disorders, female psychology, and developmental disturbances. In Winkler, M. & Cole, L.B. (Ed.), p. 127-144, The good body: Asceticism in contemporary culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Hooks, B. (2000). Where we stand: Class matters. New York & London: Routledge.

Howard, G.R. (1999). We cant teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. Teachers College Press, New York.

Kreisler, H. (2001) Psychological Insight and political understanding; The case of trauma and recovery. A conversation with Judith Herman. Retrieved on November 28, 2004 (10:07 am) from

Kolk, B.A.v.d (1994). The body keeps score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of past traumatic stress. Retrieved October 15,2004 from

McIntosh, P. (2002). “White privilege; Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” In Rothenberg, P.S., White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism. Worth Publishers, New York, pp.97-102.

Mohanty, C.T. (2004). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

More, A. (2000). Teaching and learning: Pedagogy, curriculum, and culture. London, UK: Routledge Falmer.

Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities. Teachers College Press, New York.

Orbach, Susie (1986). Hunger strike: The anorectic’s struggle as a metaphor for our age. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

O’Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical presence : Teaching as contemplative practice. Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth, NH.

Pagani, J. (2006). “Church versus spirit” in Shambhala Sun, January 2006, p. 97.

Parmeley, T. (2005). “ Largely graceful: Bodies of substance,” Retreived on 05.07.05 at 3:34 pm from

Rothchild, B. (2000). The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. W.W. Northon & Co., Inc.; New York.

Taylor, M.J. (2005). Risk management: Conscious ahimsa. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, no.14, pp. 87-92.

Thompson, B.W. (1994). A hunger so wide and so deep: A multiracial view of women’s eating problems. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

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