With Commencement fast approaching, it’s speech season at William & Mary, so I wanted to share the words of one incredible student, Erin Faltermeier. Erin was our student speaker for this year’s Active Citizens Celebration, and her words truly capture the development of an active citizen. We’re so grateful to be part of her W&M and active citizens journey.
When I was in high school, I volunteered. There were afternoons spent picking weeds out of community gardens, tutoring young kids. I did so because I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to help out, I wanted to get into college. Looking back now I can see that I approached these experiences with a limited perspective and therefore produced only limited outcomes. Through my subconscious act of oversimplifying and labeling myself as the “helper” and those that I served as needing of my help, I unknowingly created a wall between myself and those that I sought to serve, shielding myself from feeling the empathy truly needed for successful community engagement. Now I don’t look back reproachfully at my former self, far from it. I chose my actions out of good intentions, and I optimistically believe that there were some good deeds accomplished. Still, I see now how my approach lacked nuance, my understandings lacked context, my attitude lacked humility. When you only skim the surface you see what is beneath through a distorted lens. I never asked the hard questions, so I never had to confront the difficult answers. I helped, but I didn’t understand. I wasn’t an active citizen.
I had no concept of what constitutes social justice until I came to college. Through the BranchOut Program, both as a participant and a leader, I have been granted incredible opportunities to serve and to learn in my community, to take what I learned in the classroom and contextualize it in my surroundings. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of why this service is necessary, and how much there remains to be accomplished. The beauty of social justice is that this realization leads to inspiration rather than frustration, an eagerness to address structural inequality and systematic injustice, and the ability to recognize our own privilege.
From these experiences with Branch Out I learned that service is a continuous process rather than a single act, one that must be approached with care and intention. I learned the importance of education, of subverting subconscious stereotypes and granting context, without which we walk into service blind. I learned the importance of reorientation, the critical understanding and drive necessary to transfer newly gained perspectives, to bring home your message and to pursue similar action in your own community. I know now that social justice is not just one battle but a war, one from which we can never really wash our hands and say that we are finished. Above all I learned the importance of attitude in service. I first read the following words, born out of a social justice movement in Australia, on the office door of the ever lovely Melody Porter when I first went to interview for the position of BON site leader, but I didn’t truly understand their power until I had experienced my own trip. The saying goes, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote speaks to me because it beautifully expresses the humility necessary for successful community engagement. I saw this at work on the Branch Out trip that I led over Spring Break, working with students at a charter school in rural NC. On our trip we were called interns rather than volunteers, and our presence was explained to the students as visitors coming to learn and experience rather than just volunteers coming to help. This nomenclature was more than just a change of labels, it was a paradigm shift that recognized the situation for what it truly was: two communities of people coming together to learn from each other, to work collaboratively, to jointly identify problems, work towards solutions, and to together further the tides of social justice. This experience both humbled and inspired me to carry the fight for social justice into my own community, and to every community that I am fortunate enough to visit.
Now I fight for social justice because I see the equality of potential in the people around me, and I see that potential wasted. We wonder why our environment is degraded, our students are failing, our neighbors are underfed and underserved, but it can hardly come as a surprise when we squander our most precious resource, human potential, by marginalizing entire segments of our society, denying opportunity, denying people their voice.
I fight for social justice because I have felt my oppression, but I have also seen my privilege, and I now know that although privilege may make me better off relatively, in absolute terms we are all worse off for our inequalities.
I fight for social justice because I have now seen that regular people are in the best position to identify the problems facing their own communities rather than me telling them what they need, and that when empowered with the ability to connect and collaborate with others people can best generate creative solutions to address their problems.
I fight for social justice because I now see the beauty in my position not as a savior, or even simply a helper, but as a humble yet boldly active citizen working tirelessly to further the causes of social justice in my community. Thank you.