When We Serve
Most people share the value of service to humankind. And most people make efforts of some sort to that end. This is a wonderful thing. Charity often benefits not only those served, but the server as well. For example, mental health professionals have been touting volunteer work as a strategy to fight depression for decades. At the same time, not always do those who are being served feel favorably towards the service they are recipients of. And this can be difficult for people on both sides of the aisle. Legitimate complaints can be couched as “ungrateful.” Service providers can be seen as “insensitive” or “attention seeking.” Hurt feelings ensue and walls (instead of bridges) go up.
As a member of the LGBT+ community myself… I often see these types of debates or misunderstandings taking place. Whether it’s allies from within or outside the LGBT+ community, there can be critiques that feel harsh or “tone policing.” And one unintended consequence of misunderstandings is that certain people will cease to make efforts instead of leaning into the discomfort of dialogue and reaching understanding.
Some thoughts I would share from the intention of helping us serve well:
Is there some level of self-promotion that is motivating the act of service? This is not always a bad thing, necessarily. Companies donate millions of dollars for all kinds of organizations and often want recognition for the causes they support. All kinds of business people take advantage of fundraisers as a win-win scenario, where they can market themselves and do good simultaneously. Professionals will take on pro-bono cases as part of an ethical responsibility they feel towards a community, and also hope for paying referrals. At the same time, questions about self-interest are important to ask ourselves as we serve; as well as the implications it can have for those being offered the service. Is there pressure to use certain products or services because charity has been given? Is charity conditional on some type of kick-back? Are service efforts primarily organized around the intent to help the receiver, or the other way around?
In our various forms of service are we truly listening to those whom we are serving, or are attempting to serve? Is what we are doing and the way in which we are doing it, truly in line with what is needed? Is it the thing that is being asked for? If we do not know then perhaps it is worth spending time listening and talking with those whom we wish to serve. And watching for assumptions we may be making along the way.
If we hear repeated, specific criticisms of our service, then perhaps an honest look inward is in order and a closer examination of ego and motivation can begin. If we repeatedly hear specific criticism and do not change our behavior to match those offering critique, it might behoove us to become more self-aware. Is the service more about helping ourselves feel better individually, than to offer what is truly needed? If the criticism feels hurtful, and leads to our own defensiveness… is this something we are willing to explore further with more effective results?
In considering ourselves allies to any particular cause or marginalized population, it is important to delineate the difference between doing outreach/educational work and providing a direct service. For example, my book about the Mama Dragons is an outreach tool meant to help educate, support and soften hearts of those who are in a position where they are faced with a child who is coming out to them. This is helpful, necessary work which does impact the LGBT+ community in positive ways by educating the greater public. Equality Utah, on the other hand, is an organization that is mobilizing to help LGBT+ youth in state custody, foster homes and public schools. They are doing work in the behalf of those who need service directly. Both are important types of work. At the same time, I would hope that we would be willing to serve beyond the education of others and get our hands dirty in the trenches of those who are suffering the most.
What are some ways you have found helpful to continue in the service of others even when there have been hiccups or misunderstandings along the way?
Kimberly Anderson is a guest speaker, writer and advocate for the LGBT+ population and a coach/mentor for individuals and family systems who are seeking to adapt and find ways to journey towards self actualization in transgender/intersex situations. She is the editor of the Mama Dragon Story Project where she photographed and collected essays from mothers of LGBT+ children.