Be the Change – Austin, TX

“Nev­er doubt that a small group of com­mit­ted peo­ple can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  This quote by Mar­garet Mead best cap­tures the spir­it of Austin’s Be the Change Nation­al Day of Ser­vice event.  When we first par­tic­i­pat­ed as a com­mu­ni­ty in 2010, we coor­di­nat­ed 1 ser­vice project that involved 50 vol­un­teers. The next year we iden­ti­fied 15 new ser­vice sites and engaged 500 vol­un­teers, and the year fol­low­ing we dou­bled the num­ber of ser­vice projects and engaged 1,000 vol­un­teers host­ing the largest Be the Change event across the coun­try for the last 3 years.

The ini­tial plan­ning of Be the Change in Austin start­ed with a small group of ded­i­cat­ed indi­vid­u­als want­i­ng to sim­ply pro­mote vol­un­teerism espe­cial­ly among Austin’s grow­ing South Asian com­mu­ni­ty.  Be the Change pro­vides an avenue for indi­vid­u­als to get out of their com­fort zones, learn about the needs of their local com­mu­ni­ty and iden­ti­fy ways they can make a pos­i­tive impact through vol­un­teerism and com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice.  It also serves as a mean­ing­ful way to mobi­lize the com­mu­ni­ty towards a pro­duc­tive cause that will lead to fur­ther civic engage­ment.

Although root­ed in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, the Austin plan­ning team and day of ser­vice has evolved into an event engag­ing vol­un­teers from all walks of life regard­less of eth­nic, reli­gious or cul­tur­al back­ground.  Be the Change has also grown into a city-wide event. Since being iden­ti­fied by SAALT as one of the core cities to host Be the Change, the City of Austin has pro­claimed Be the Change day in Austin each year. Our efforts have lead to strong part­ner­ships with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Long­horn Cen­ter for Civic Engage­ment and GivePulse, a social net­work­ing site for vol­un­teers and non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, which man­ages our ser­vice site and vol­un­teer reg­is­tra­tion.

Although plan­ning a day of ser­vice is a big under­tak­ing for a team of vol­un­teers espe­cial­ly for many of us who also hold full-time jobs, the com­mu­ni­ty impact has been immea­sur­able. Each year we wit­ness the rip­ple effect of the year before and that’s what moti­vates us to set our expec­ta­tions high. We have tru­ly expe­ri­enced the pow­er a small group of com­mit­ted peo­ple can make in their local com­mu­ni­ty by inspir­ing a spir­it of ser­vice which will ulti­mate­ly change the world.

Sonia Kotecha
Be the Change-Austin Team Coor­di­na­tor

Stand together, Serve together

I arrived at Fazen­da Boi Gor­do (or Fat Cow Farm) in Cam­po Grande, Brazil the first few days after the New Year in 2010. I spent the next four weeks as a vol­un­teer, work­ing on the veg­etable gar­den, get­ting to know the towns peo­ple, and eat­ing chili pep­pers which always went unsold. The farm was part of a com­mu­ni­ty of recent migrants from the north­east of Brazil and immi­grants from Japan. Both groups came for var­i­ous rea­sons but over­all in search of safe­ty, work oppor­tu­ni­ty, adven­ture and a bet­ter life.  From wak­ing each day before dawn, to eat­ing lunch with work­ers and staff who spoke a mix of Japan­ese and Por­tuguese, I expe­ri­enced a lifestyle and met peo­ple I would have nev­er oth­er­wise encoun­tered.

Sec­ond to the spi­der webs that spanned 20 feet, the inspi­ra­tion and con­nec­tion I felt to the peo­ple I met on the farm is the most mem­o­rable part of that vol­un­teer expe­ri­ence. The farm’s own­er, Ser­gio, who emi­grat­ed from Japan in his ear­ly 20s, had the same favorite movie as my father (“Sev­en Brides for Sev­en Broth­ers,” a musi­cal, west­ern style romance com­e­dy. I don’t think I need to explain why it was a hit in South Asia).  I felt an unex­pect­ed empa­thy with his chil­dren, who were still rec­on­cil­ing being between two cul­tures; an iden­ti­ty cri­sis that many of us chil­dren of immi­grants expe­ri­ence. In four short weeks, I built rela­tion­ships with peo­ple whose sto­ries both touched me and con­nect­ed with my own.

My farm­ing stint, and oth­er sim­i­lar vol­un­teer expe­ri­ences increase sol­i­dar­i­ty, cross cul­tur­al under­stand­ing, and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty between diverse indi­vid­u­als.  I feel a much deep­er respect and con­nec­tion to peo­ple who devote their lives to intense phys­i­cal work such as farm­ing, and immigrants/migrants from all back­grounds. I thought of the farmer and his fam­i­ly when I vis­it­ed Japan the fol­low­ing year, and often when I buy fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles off the farm stands through­out California’s coun­try­side.

I look for­ward to par­tic­i­pat­ing in my first Be the Change event this fall and hav­ing anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve and build my com­mu­ni­ty. Be the Change is an annu­al day of ser­vice, which SAALT coor­di­nates, that has thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants from across the Unit­ed States. It is a response to Mahat­ma Gandhi’s chal­lenge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”  For me, Be the Change is a chance to com­mit vol­un­teer hours in sol­i­dar­i­ty with peo­ple around the coun­try. More impor­tant­ly, how­ev­er, Be the Change gives me a chance to reflect on my vision for the future of our com­mu­ni­ty, which is one of greater equal­i­ty and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships. To under­stand the role com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice can have in my vision, I am tak­en back to my most influ­en­tial and impact­ful vol­un­teer expe­ri­ence: my time at Fazen­da Boi Gor­do.

In gen­er­al, I think “being the change,” all the time can be a chal­lenge, to say the least. My morn­ing mantra, is hard­ly, “wake up, brush teeth, eat break­fast, be the change.” Usu­al­ly, I don’t even make it to “eat break­fast,” before I look at my cell phone and rush out the door so I can make it to work on time. Fur­ther­more, there are so many changes I would like to see in this world, I usu­al­ly don’t know where to start. Yet, when I think of all the oppor­tu­ni­ties I’ve had to serve the com­mu­ni­ty, and all the rela­tion­ships I’ve built because of them, and I don’t feel as over­whelmed. I feel excit­ed and refreshed by the peo­ple I’ve met, and every­thing I’ve learned through them.

We all know how impor­tant it is to give back to the com­mu­ni­ties that we live in, the com­mu­ni­ties that sus­tain and nur­ture us. In these last few sen­tences I could try my best to inun­date you with the best sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence, and sta­tis­tics I’ve scrounged up on how com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice increas­es lev­els of hap­pi­ness. Or how each hour spent vol­un­teer­ing has an eco­nom­ic val­ue of $22.14 (http://www.handsonnetwork.org/tools/volunteercalculator). There is no doubt that com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice and vol­un­teerism is part of the glue that holds this nation togeth­er. Yet, I think the most mean­ing­ful state­ment I can leave you with is that my expe­ri­ences serv­ing as a vol­un­teer is the glue that binds me to my vision for the future. Each friend­ship made is a small step towards strength­en­ing my com­mu­ni­ty. Each expe­ri­ence inspires me and guides my life deci­sions. For exam­ple, with­out pos­i­tive vol­un­teer expe­ri­ences, I would have nev­er chose to spend this past year as an Ameri­Corps Vol­un­teer serv­ing the South Asian immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in Mary­land, through SAALT.  All in all, I’m excit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in Be the Change 2013, and can’t wait to hear new sto­ries, meet new peo­ple, and see how it will shape my future.

Avani Mody
Mary­land Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor, Ameri­Corps
SAALT