Vehicles of Change

I began interning with NCPIRG in November and just days ago I joined the steering committee for the Resolve to Fight Poverty Annual Conference. I joined during our New Voters Project with the hope of helping out where needed, especially with our sustainability projects.

Life surprised us with a reshuffling, and to keep working with our campus coordinator, we pulled together behind the No Hunger, No Homelessness action kit–which was great. We raised a fair amount of money for Feeding America through the National Hunger Clean-Up, and now many of us are coordinating a national conference. That’s not something most people can brag about–not that I’m bragging.

Not only this, my NCPIRG family is just that–family–and I want to keep working with them and helping our group to grow and make a difference, on campus, in our community, and in our entire country. Which is all good and great, mind you, except that since I joined the group, I’ve been struggling to answer a pretty important question:

Why do I care?

The New Voters Project had me right away: I’m a big advocate for public activism (is that redundant?) and I want to see people–especially young people–standing up for what they believe in and fighting to make a difference. I’ve had so many opportunities to see students like myself working passionately for causes they believe in–as varied as mental illness, clean water, and litter removal–and I want to help inspire others to take action. The first step to being an active citizen is being informed and voting. Why wouldn’t I sign up to volunteer when I could help change that and get kids my age to the polls? It felt amazing–and when I got to meet the North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, it was incredible!

Part of the reason why I’m studying political science is that I want to see change happen, but in order to change the game, I have to know the rules, don’t I? I want to help others learn these rules and especially how to play the game well–because if they can’t play the game, they can’t change. And I want to inspire change. Real change.

Last November I volunteered with Stop Hunger Now to package meals to be distributed around to the world to communities in need. It felt selfless, giving up my weekend for the needy, and it was actually a lot of fun once I got into it–but it felt remarkably empty once I was done. It was great that I had done my part to help hunger, but feeding people doesn’t end hunger. It alleviates it–but only briefly.

As I walked home, I was angry. Angry that all our work made only a temporary difference. We changed nothing. The people who ate these meals would still be hungry once the food was gone–and that frustrated me. Here were all these people, fighting to end hunger–but they couldn’t. No number of packaged meals will ever end hunger. You can’t end hunger with food; you can only do it with policy changes–no, not policy changes, cultural and social changes that alleviate the need for food or that distribute the food we have fairly.

I feel the same way toward homelessness.

I can’t answer “Why do I care?” about hunger and homelessness because I don’t care about hunger and homelessness.

Be careful you don’t take that out of context. I care, absolutely I care–but I recognize that hunger and homelessness are the symptoms of a larger problem, a wound so deep it cannot be cured by endlessly applying bandaids. We’ll never truly alleviate hunger and homelessness if we only ever care about hunger and homelessness.

What drew me to NCPIRG was my passion for sustainability and for developing active students who’ll grow into active citizens. I didn’t choose hunger and homelessness–they were chosen for me. However, that’s not to say I can’t care about them–it simply means my passion must be fostered indirectly. It means I must look higher and aim broader to compel myself to fight to end hunger.

I’ve been watching TED Talks to help me find my passion about hunger. I was once told if you’re not interested in something, you don’t know enough about it to be curious, so naturally valuing information as I do, I figured self-education would be my key to unlocking this concern. But the only thing TED has done is reinforce what I already knew–that I don’t care about hunger and homelessness.

The beauty in this revelation is that once I stopped trying to care for something I don’t care about, I could identify what I do care about–the change I desperately want to see in the world around me, the world, as it so happens to be, that won’t even be mine anymore.

I dream of a world free from the oppressive grasp poverty and pollution. I’ve grown up in public housing, living off food stamps and financial aid–and I don’t want this same fate for my kids or anyone else. I’ve faced food insecurity on campus when my bank account was empty and my meal plan had almost run out. I’ve witnessed others like myself humbly walking to a food pantry just to survive until that test next Thursday. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it–but it doesn’t make me passionate about hunger. It makes me passionate about poverty.

The most amazing thing is ending poverty is one of the best ways we can make a sustainable difference in the world. Indira Gandhi said it best when she said, “Poverty is the worst form of pollution”: If people are struggling to survive, why on earth would they care about pollution and carbon footprints? The only way to make people want to preserve the earth is if the earth is preserving them.

I want to see my kids grow up in a world as beautiful as ours–in fact, I want our kids to have a world more beautiful than ours. This can only happen if we become stewards of the Garden God left us and take care of the earth while we still can. Part of this must come through pursuing alternative forms of energy, changing our consumption habits, and reducing our demands of global resources, but the rest of this can only come by lifting the poor out of poverty and bringing them to our table as friends, family, part of our global community.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen fast, but it’ll be a while before I’ve got kids, so maybe it’ll happen fast enough so when they’re my age, they won’t have to worry about hunger and homelessness, about pollution and poverty, because they all would’ve been eradicated before they ever had the chance to ask, “Why do I care?”

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