When It Comes to Helping Others: Just Do It

May 18, 2011, 6:26 PM By RYE BARCOTT

It’s graduation season, and for the past two months I’ve been traveling to campuses in the United States on a book tour to talk about service in the Marines and social entrepreneurship in Africa. One point seems to resonate with students above all of the others. From a commuter college in the plains of Indiana to Stanford and MIT, students have been latching onto one simple sentence: be a doer.

I use this line to emphasize the larger point that you don’t have to wait to make an impact. You don’t have to wait for wealth, status, or age. This is true more so today than perhaps ever before.

Rye Barcott, co-founder of the organization Carolina for Kibera and author of
Jason ArthursRye Barcott, co-founder of the organization Carolina for Kibera and author of “It Happened on the Way to War,” exchanges a “gota,” or fist bump, with a young member of his organization.

Even during a recession, opportunities abound for young Americans to make a difference in the world. Travel is far more accessible for many, and our attitudes have changed. We think more globally. As technology gives voice to individuals without established power, youth are gaining more respect as a collective. Our networks are becoming broader as we harness powerful new tools to mobilize resources and people.

Of course, new tools also bring new barriers. Although it’s easier to reach people, people are also overloaded with information. It’s harder to be heard because there are so many messages cluttering our lives. As we hear more voices, we listen less. Our technology encourages us to exchange depth for breadth.

When I was in graduate school two years ago my classmates and I spoke about FOMO, “fear of missing out.” This is a bizarre condition, and for many of us, it has continued post graduation. There are so many options we know about today, and it is easy to feel anxiety when simply thinking about what else we could be doing. Meanwhile, as travel becomes more accessible, many of our trips have become shorter. The pressures to do more prevent many of us from doing a few things well.

I’ve seen the effects of this first hand on the faces of college students across the country. After one presentation, a student eagerly exclaimed, “I’m a doer and I just want to do something.”

Her statement implies the question: How? How do you make an impact in an environment that is equally empowering and overwhelming?

The answer, I believe, starts with an old-fashioned skill: Listening. Listening enables trust, and trust is the foundation of positive change. We need to slow down and listen more before doing. This was a lesson I learned as the co-founder of a non-governmental organization (ngo) in one of the largest slums in Africa – Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya – and carried with me to Iraq as a Marine.

Fourteen years ago the Marines gave me an ROTC scholarship to attend college. Assuming I would be involved in peacekeeping missions, I took classes to gain a better understanding of why ethnic violence happened. I studied basic anthropology and Swahili, then travelled one summer to Kibera to conduct research. There I rented a small shack in the community and started listening to young men my age as they spoke about their lives and ambitions. It wasn’t long before that I recognized a fundamental truth about the world: talent is universal; opportunity is not.

Two Kenyans and I later co-founded Carolina For Kibera to combine more opportunity with talent by investing in local leaders. We referred to our approach as “participatory development.” It’s a concept from anthropology that acknowledges that sustainable change must be driven from within communities. It can’t be imposed from the outside. I found this to be true in Kibera, where our organization now engages more than 50,000 people a year, and also in the Marines, where we continue to wrestle with how to build local capacity during counter-insurgencies.

As broad as our networks become, depth still matters. Change still begins with small groups of committed citizens. For me, those groups took the form of teams of Marines, and two Kenyan doers born into conditions far different from my own. We formed relationships rooted in trust and integrity. But they wouldn’t have formed if we didn’t know how to listen to each other.

Young Americans are hungry to make an impact, and being a doer can take many forms. For some it may involve public service. For others it may be starting something, or creating something that inspires others. For most it will involve changing already-established organizations and companies from within because doing isn’t always simply starting from scratch. It is also sustaining and improving. And across this spectrum of making a difference, one thing is common: Doing well often begins with listening well, and that’s a skill we can all work on, regardless of our age.

Rye Barcott is the author of “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace.” The book was released this spring in conjunction with the 10th anniversary for Carolina For Kibera, the NGO that he co-founded while an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001. He is a TED Fellow and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Source: NY Times

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