The Emerald Street Urban Farm, located at the corner of Emerald and Dauphin Streets. (Photo c/o Nic Esposito)
My first MLK day of service was spent painting a school in New Orleans. This was right after Hurricane Katrina and I was there as part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a program of the Americorps. I had signed up for the NCCC after backing out of the Peace Corps, as well as nine depressing months of trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life post college. Although my four years of university were full those defining activities such as writing poetry, discovering coffee shops and reading Marx, I graduated with a desire to develop a bit more of my physical energy after focusing so much on my mental.
The NCCC allowed me to do just that. I must admit that before this experience I didn’t really know what volunteerism or social action really was. I joined Amnesty International in high school because my guidance counselor told me that it would look good on my college applications. And I joined the NCCC more out of my personal reasons of wanting travel and adventure.
But after that first MLK day of painting the school, and then starting my first NCCC assignment with Habitat For Humanity building houses in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi that were destroyed by Katrina, I realized that true volunteerism wasn’t the grand, monumental action that I had read about in my study of political movements. Volunteerism was painting a school, building a house, or as I happened to thrive at, pulling weeds in a community farm.
It was this understanding that real social change came block by block and community by community rather than as some epic movement that allowed me to go on to do the things I’ve done – like start urban farms. It’s also the volunteer mentality of giving a part of yourself with no expectation of a return that has allowed me to run a publishing company for two years while not getting paid and having to work another job. Although I must admit that it’s kind of insane to do such a thing, the volunteer mentality gives me the faith that it will all work out in the end. I can trace every benefit I’ve received, every opportunity I’ve capitalized on, and basically my entire emotional and spiritual development back to volunteerism.
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But again, after all of these experiences, I’ve been questioning what volunteerism actually is in our society. It makes me think of the farm workdays we run at Emerald Street Urban Farm. When people who are not from the neighborhood come to volunteer after finding us online, they are always a little confused when we explain to them that we are not part of an organization nor do we have any formal structure.
I love when these people come to the farm, primarily because they remind me of myself when I first had the urge to volunteer and give back. It can be intimidating or overwhelming to try and find a volunteer opportunity. I actually remember the first time I called the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s general line looking for a volunteer opportunity in an urban garden when I moved back to Philly. After spending two years working for that organization, I saw hundreds of people do the same thing.
But I also love when these people come to the farm because it’s an opportunity to show them that a group of neighbors can get together on their own accord, without the backing of a large organization or formal structure, and create a green space as well as provide food for the neighborhood. I sometimes fear that my generation has a predilection to have to structure every activity into an organization that habitually grows into something bigger each year.
I don’t have an answer for why this is. Maybe it’s social media’s fault for technologically structuring all of our relationships? Maybe it’s the proliferation of the nonprofits in place of municipal government that encourages citizens to incorporate to do good? Whatever it is, I hope we don’t lose the ideal of a group of neighbors who can just get together to keep their block clean or shut down the street to throw a block party that brings the neighbors together.
This may sound hypocritical coming from a person who seems to have an obsession with starting organizations. But some of the best times in my day are when I come home and mow the grass in the green space across the street from my house, or invite the kids into the farm to pick veggies. We don’t always need a big, funded, structured organization to do this.
So this MLK day, I hope that you donate your time to one of those big organizations that really need your help, and that really do a lot of good. But when you get home, I also hope that you look for those simple, yet crucial opportunities in your neighborhood to make your community a better place, and those neighbors who can do it with you.
Nic Esposito is a writer, novelist, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press. He lives with his wife and their animals on their urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.-30-
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