Monday, July 4, 2011 - 9:00am

posted by
Dianna Schwartz,
Public Allies Arizona Alumna /
Program Associate,
New Global Citizens

About eighteen months ago, I was standing outside a Thai classroom in the open courtyard of an elementary school in Bangkok, watching from a second-story perch as Thai children "marched" in the center recreation area. As an American who had traveled extensively in Europe before, I often harbored the telltale sign of a Catholic — guilt — when representing my country on foreign turf.

The U.S., known for having a culture of excess, had often given me reasons to feel apologetic when interacting with foreign civilizations. I had learned to keep my head down, to speak quietly and thoughtfully, to keep my opinions to myself, and, when all else failed, to tell people that I was Canadian.

I was poised to enter a classroom and represent my country again, this time to forty third-graders who might never make it to the U.S. on their own. I had just been told that part of the value I brought as an English teacher was being Goodwill Ambassador, bringing U.S. culture to a generation of Thai youth. If they never travel abroad in their life, this will be all they know of the U.S. I watched the marching students below and mulled over that awesome responsibility, and, oddly enough, felt the dawning of a supremely foreign thought.

While we certainly have reasons to be reluctant to announce our U.S. heritage loudly, we also have reasons to be proud to call ourselves U.S. citizens. Not every country exports volunteers in the way our country does — the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Cross Cultural Solutions, Atlas Corps, Global Leadership Adventures... the list continues on ad infinitum.


During our country's current educational reform, leaders are emphasizing service learning, and they're demanding this principle be built into a national curriculum. Like almost all youth in the U.S., I was participating in community service by the sixth grade, and I was always taught that no matter how little I had to give, there was always somebody with less that I could help. Even our U.S. comic book heroes propound the notion that "with awesome power comes awesome responsibility."

Perched outside that classroom, I suddenly felt an overpowering sense of pride to have been born a U.S. citizen, and to have come so very far from my own home — with my own money, with my hard work in fundraising additional monies, with a drive to make a difference, and with a willingness to sit on a fourteen-hour plane ride to go do so — because having grown up in this society had given me the responsibility to make a difference, and access to the resources to make that happen.

I was immediately very, very proud of my country — for the first time, in a foreign land.

The U.S. is a world leader, and with any leader comes both praise and doubts. It's certainly easy to find fault with anyone willing to step up to the plate and lead others, but respect ought to be offered for the good that a leader is creating. I don't mean to say we should not question power. After all, it was JFK who once offered that, "The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us."

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Kennedy's statement, but gently remind us all that a leader's task is to look at assets. I have come to believe that my charge as an agent for good is to see the positive attributes of people, places, and things, and to quietly assist in aiding the decrease in deficiencies.

I leave you with this thought and charge: So often in the nonprofit world, we hear the word change. Working for change! Agent for change! Change for the better! I sometimes cock my head to the side and think, "If we're all just out to create change, then aren't we simply redoing — and undoing — everyone else's work before us? Isn't that a bit selfish? Potentially seeking only to leave a mark of ourselves on the world?" I think it's a natural inclination to wish to leave our mark on society and know that we've been a Presence in this life.

This year in AmeriCorps, and the lessons learned in regards to How to Be of Service, however, have pushed me to use a different qualifying word for what it is we do: progress. "Change" is a loosely defined term, and doesn't answer the question of positive or negative action. But progress — a call to creating good, and moving us forward as a society — seeing the end to extreme poverty, the creation of universal education rights for all, and a society that accepts all races, creeds, and sexual orientations — contains within it the seed of inspiration that we all feel within our hearts.

Life is cyclical, and so with it will come ups and downs; we move in a wheel of good times and bad times. That is only natural. But inspired by progress, the wheel itself is moving uphill, and our world continues to improve every single day. We are part of a system of progress that has been developed by man for millennia; a humbling realization that gently reminds me how lucky I am to even partake in it. It is a movement I am proud to be a part of and share in with all of you.

From New Jersey to San Diego to Phoenix, and from a professional recruiting role to youth leadership development, Dianna has followed a path to continually align her life with being of service. As a leader, resume coach, camp counselor, and writer, she has been humbled to find herself in a position of empowering others to take action, for therein lies the true gift!


Like this article? Get another!
Click here to read "Really, how many people volunteer?" — a Research Friday post from Dr. Mark Hager, analyzing how many people set out to do good in Arizona.

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