22 February 2009

wraps, cambridge, and the scale of my competence

Not that long ago I received an e-mail from a nice young lad from the Williams College class of 2011. To fully convey the horror of getting an e-mail from an '11, I told my Cambridge friends who graduated from Williams in '08 to imagine receiving an e-mail from somebody from the class of 2015. This young, young sprout e-mailed me on the advice of the Williams chaplain, who remains one of my favorite people on Earth. My ego hadn't been this tickled since, a year or two after graduation, I was informed that I still had a "following" at Williams after I left.

This sharp, fresh-faced child is now in charge of WRAPS (Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus), the campus food salvage program that I ran for most of my time at Williams. WRAPS was the first domino in a series that led to my job in Alaska. This distant successor of mine, who was almost certainly born after Ronald Reagan left office, is hoping to expand WRAPS in some interesting new directions and wanted advice and some background on the history of the program.

As I offered my recollections of the founding and expansion of WRAPS to this charming lad, who had yet to be conceived when I began my schooling, it led me to reflect on how different my identity is at Cambridge than it has been anywhere else. I realized that the core of my "extracurricular" life has always been community service and activism, from Williams right on through to Alaska. Somebody reading my resume might be puzzled to discover that in late 2008 I suddenly decided to stop trying to feed the hungry, save Darfur, and teach English to immigrants, and instead got into planning dinner parties and serving as treasurer for an overprivileged posse of grad students. There's a possibility that I might be getting involved with the British version of food banking, but that's the only hint of my old pastimes and may not pan out anyway.

I have a few theories on why this is. Theory #1, the Happenstance Theory, is that there is no real underlying reason at all: I just got sucked into doing what I'm doing early this year and thus there's no time for anything else. I certainly never would have set out to be an MCR social secretary, but I was a "keen" participant in early events and was recruited by the outgoing committee, and that was that.

Theory #2 is the Poverty Lobe Exhaustion Theory. Since I spend all of my studying/class time thinking about poverty, underdevelopment, etc., all the room in my brain for that stuff is taken up and therefore I need to do something different with my personal life. There could be something to this, but it's inconsistent with my last two years in Alaska, so I don't find it convincing.

Theory #3, the most sophisticated explanation and probably the one that makes me look best, is the Wendell Berry Theory. My grad school admissions essays and fellowship applications of yore often referenced Wendell Berry, the author-farmer-environmentalist who wrote that "our understandable wish to save the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence." In other words, if you're going to try to help, you better know what the fuck you're doing.

When I encountered Berry's thinking in an environmental studies course at Williams, it immediately resonated with me; Berry helped me understand why I instinctively shied away from the kind of activism preferred by many of my peers in favor of locally grounded projects like WRAPS. Even my Save Darfur activism had a specific local goal: divesting Alaska's Permanent Fund from firms that are bankrolling genocide. My most successful projects in Alaska had laser-focused objectives, such as helping community organizations and tribes access federal dollars for summer feeding. You can see why the work of Bill Easterly, the economist who thinks that grand development plans are doomed to fail, is also attractive to me.

The Wendell Berry Theory suggests that I'm not doing any community service or activism at Cambridge because I know that I don't know or understand this community enough to be of much service to it. This may not be the right attitude to project at, say, a job interview... but I think it is one of the emerging core values of my still-young -- younger than that kid from Williams! -- career.

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