For a recent Coastal-transplant like myself, there’s nothing more beautiful in the District right now than watching the trees change from green to yellow to red in a kaleidoscope of Crayola colors that I’ve hitherto never experienced. As autumn moves onward and the weather continues to cool, many of my fellow Avodahniks are finally settling into a comfortable routine at their job placements, getting prepared for a long winter in the office. Not so here at Behrend Builders! We’ve had five great projects here in the past three weeks alone and the work has just begun.
These five projects, all of which have been staffed almost entirely by volunteers, have required painting, sanding, caulking, scraping, taping, sweeping, scrubbing, and a whole lot of learning. As it turns out, most high school freshman have never painted anything before; consequently, most of the scrubbing that happens results from at least one student tracking green paint through three floors of white carpet (it’s like a leaf design, it’s artsy! No? ok…) As a result, I am slowly learning to adapt my leadership development experience and facilitation skills to help volunteers not only recognize their positions of privilege and explore the class differences in their community, but also to help them become empowered through properly protecting floors, ceilings, and furniture.
Nevertheless, the time I spend teaching Behrend’s volunteers about the refined art of window caulking is definitely repaid to me through the enlightening and engaging dialogues I’ve had with those same people. For instance, last weekend during Behrend Builders’ Open Build I was simultaneously painting a door and having a talk about racial identity with some young Howard University women. One woman in particular, Mary, described to me a frustrating situation that she has recently found herself in. While Mary looks African-American, she actually self-identifies as Afro-Caribbean (specifically, Haitian). She explained to me that this puts her in a strange position on campus because, while she looks African American and is thus treated as such by society, she is often excluded from African American community events on campus because she self-identifies as something else. Mary thus feels like she is unable to engage with and be supported by a campus community of people with similar experiences while maintaining her own sense of self.
This struggle to make a place for one’s self in a community while also maintaining one’s sense of self is something I struggle with all the time. Whether it’s choosing between a job with better pay or a job that lines up with my ideals, making friends with new neighbors, or even something as simple (for some) as deciding whether or not to go out with friends on Shabbat, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between building relationships with others and building a strong relationship with myself. As the autumn progresses and Behrend Builders’ projects continue, I hope that my routine, as often as it includes physical work, continues to include conversations with others that lead to more considerations and reflections like this one as well.