JoAnne and I (along with JoAnne’s sister, Mary Lou) spent four days last week at the Democratic National Convention. None of us were delegates; we were volunteers, helping to host the visitors to our city. JoAnne and Mary Lou agreed to lead the team of volunteers responsible for supporting guests and participants with disabilities. I served as one of those who supported people with disabilities to find places to sit, to get food, to use the bathroom and to get out of the arena when the festivities ended.
What this meant for all of us on the team was a 12-hour day, including physical labor, intensive support for others’ needs, and complex communication with others on the team. I finished each of the four days exhausted, but satisfied with the ways I had been of service.
We touch on service in the workshop, experiencing ourselves as being of service and reflecting on what that means to us. I say that being of service is one of the important ways in which we open ourselves to change. My sense is that participants in the workshop make their own connections with their own experiences of service and its connection to change.
There was, of course, much more going on at the Convention than my little part. The making of history and even the narrative people saw on TV was all taking place at another level. I liked that part too, and I got to watch many of the important speeches, including Michelle Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s. What was different for me, because of my role and the service I provided, was that I experienced these events and many others that were part of the Convention through the eyes of the people I was serving.
To be of service is to put aside my own needs for a while and to attend to those of another in a very concrete way. As I watched Hillary Clinton speak, I was aware of the thin, older, African-American woman in the wheelchair next to me as she struggled to stand, or broke into tears, or asked for water, or slapped my arm to ask if I had heard what was just said. Being there for her made me a part of her joy in the nomination of a woman, in the affirmation of her values and her appreciation of belonging in her tribe. I wasn’t thinking much, at that time, about what it all meant to me. I just knew that I had wheeled her to this place where she could have this experience and would be sure that she was cared for and could make her way to the bus when it was over.
I had many similar experiences over the four days I served, bonding with those I served and learning about my own strengths and limitations as a person of service. I learned lessons about listening, about setting boundaries without anger or hostility, about stretching to do what at first seemed impossible, about humility, and, of course, about the obstacles our world places in the way of those with disabilities.
The bigger lesson I am coming to, upon reflection about my experience, is that being of service is a pertinent qualification for leadership. The developed ability, based on experience, to put aside one’s own needs and to seek fulfillment of the needs of others is part of what makes a person a good leader. There is a whole school of leadership devoted to the idea of “servant leadership” and I feel as though I have a new appreciation of the concept. In looking at our candidates, not just for President, but for offices from Senate to school board, it seems to me the one important question to ask is, how does this person serve? Those who have made service an important element of their lives have, for me, a greater claim on my allegiance than those who have not.