“Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something we do in our spare time.” ~Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, Spelman College Class of 1960
When I first heard this quote, it resonated with me. I memorized it immediately, making it part of my personal quotes to live by. It resonated with me because people have always said “you do a lot of community service,” and that statement seemed strange to me. Isn’t that, after all, our responsibility? Isn’t it our duty to care for one another, to support one another, to be thoughtful about what we do, how we do it, and how it will affect others? As I ponder the definition of community, I think about this concept of service. How can we function in our home, work and social environments only caring about the things that directly affect us? We lose the richness of life by being self-serving and self-centered in that way.
I’ve lived in 3 different states in my short life thus far. In each of those locations, I found myself entrenched into the fabric of very unique environments. In Georgia, I lived in a collegiate environment surrounded by housing projects and children whose realities of violence and parents in jail were foreign to me. But even so, they were part of my community, and I didn’t shield myself from their world or reality. I found myself in the schools, helping those children visualize a life that, while familiar to me, seemed like an after school special that couldn’t really happen for them. But it could, and it eventually would, for some of them. In Michigan, there was a juxtaposition of the traditional midwest college town, with its highly paid professors and well-educated professionals living in nice homes with white picket fences, and the pockets of town with students who would ask me, then a 22 year old, to come to their school play because their parents wouldn’t come and I was the first person to support them. It broke my heart, but what if I had stayed within the beautifully manicured walls of my graduate school program? Would they have never known that someone cared about them? Would they have never experienced the support of any adult at a young age? And finally, in my hometown of RVA, I find myself woven into the fabric of a community that is full of contradictions at every turn. I move from the cul de sac southern suburbian life where I reside with my family, to the housing projects in the Northside where I attended nursery school, but never lived, to the far West End where you can live, work and play. I am a Native Richmonder, and yet, find myself often conflicted as to how I define my community. It is the place where I work, and so I give my time there. It is the place where I live, so I ensure that I give time there, even if it’s just attending a homeowner’s association meeting or chatting with my neighbors for a bit. But it is also the places where I grew and learned, which look nothing like where I live and work, but helped cultivate me into the woman I am today; so I give my time there, driving into neighborhoods some would argue “I have no business being, because they aren’t safe.” But if we all abandon these places, how are we paying our rent on this earth?
Community is where you live, work and play, but it is also the areas around it that may be impacted by your life and actions. Perhaps it’s the places that helped cultivate you – you must go back and give them the time they invested in you. Perhaps it’s places you’ve never been in, but that are near you – your life can impact them, don’t deprive them of that opportunity. And finally, perhaps it’s the places where you live – we cannot just take and build for ourselves, we must make things better for those who will come after us.
When we invest in our community, we invest in others an in this world. That is the fabric of life, and the fabric of a great society, and if that’s the rent I must pay on this earth, I will gladly do so. –Rasheeda N. Matthews