This summer, I picked up my second copy of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street at a library book sale and opened it almost as soon as I returned home. After a twenty-year hiatus between readings, I found that I had an even greater understanding and appreciation of the poetic novel this time around. An important idea in the work is that of those who gain voice, gain footing in this world, those such as writers, coming back to their place of origin to help those who have not – in other words, giving back to the community. The author’s words made me analyze the phrase “the community” and how I, myself, give back.
I first realized that I don’t give back to “my” community, per se, outside, perhaps, of being supportive of childhood friends with whom I am connected on social media. Although the Chicagoland suburb in which I was raised was Mayberry-esque, it was also narrow and stifling, and one that I left without strong ties and without looking back. Sad but true.
I began to ponder the ways in which we gain communities as life progresses. I give back to physical communities in Northwest Indiana, where I now live, based upon personal and professional experiences. One such city, I give to whenever possible because one of my daughter’s grandmothers resides there, a community that I’ve grown attached to over the decades, that is in need. I give back to other local cities and towns because I teach and live either in them or nearby.
Giving back to “the community,” can be more than giving to a general population in a physical space, though. I also give back to Indiana’s literary arts community because reading and writing are passions of mine, and I will attempt to foster the love and development of these entwined activities in as many ways and for as long as I am able; reading and writing can change lives for the better. In the process, I have also begun interacting with leaders of local not-for-profit organizations and businesses in the visual and performing arts, and now, I advocate for these forms and establishments as well. Artists should not be wholly defined by their own genre and place therein or territorial of it. The more that artists in literary, visual, musical, and performing genres support the community as a whole, the stronger it will become. Synergy, after all.
Sometimes developing a community that an individual wants to dedicate his or her time and talents to involves an introduction to an unfamiliar culture. As a college student, I became a feminist, and as the years go by, I advocate increasingly for related causes, such as protection of reproductive rights and prevention and reduction of oppression in its myriad of practices.
As an English professor, I was given an opportunity to teach English as a Second Language in Jeremie, Haiti – and I was so affected by what I had witnessed in the most impoverished country in the world that a year later I began to write a poetry collection, Weight of Silence, about its tragic history and current sociopolitical circumstances, with the intention of making a donation to the university (UNOGA) and a not-for-profit organization, Haitian Connection, with the proceeds. Now, with Hurricane Matthew having destroyed over 80 percent of the city’s infrastructure, I am anxious to redouble my efforts to publish the work and donate 100 percent of the proceeds. Teaching abroad made me feel more committed as a member of our global community than ever before.
I know many people who give back to more communities, in more ways and with greater zeal and talent than I ever will. It isn’t a competition, though; everyone does what they can as they become increasingly able. A millionaire once handed a check for $5,000 to my mom to be applied toward my college education. My dad was dead, and he knew that my mom was struggling. He said, “Tell Janine that when her ship comes to shore, to help others still at sea.” It was my first exposure to the idea of paying it forward. Giving back is a process – a lifelong process. Perhaps “the community,” should be used in plural form, as in “giving back to the communities”? Giving back, after all, is more like the formation of concentric circles of communities building ever outward. At the same time, narrowing is also necessary. I am reminded of the words of the late U.S. Senator Paul H. Douglas: “When I was young, I wanted to save the world. In my middle years, I would have been content to save my country. Now, I just want to save the dunes.”
I wonder – how do you define “communities”? Upon reflection of your journey, what have you learned and where do you see it taking you?
Please share your insights in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
In upcoming blogs, I will address the following ideas and much more!
- How best to help Jeremie, Haiti, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew
- The adjunct crisis
- Creative writers in academia, past, present, and future
- All things writing
- Book recommendations, both adult and YA (Guest blogger, my tween daughter, Jianna, may cover YA)
- Indiana’s creative writing community
- The challenges and advantages of being a writing couple
- Reflections on motherhood