from “You Give a Lot, You Get a Lot,” by Congressman Tom Petri (Wisconsin 6th District), written April 8, 2011
While in Somalia [with the Peace Corps], I learned quite a bit about how the world works in practice and not just in theory, and these lessons have informed my public service ever since.
For instance, we Americans tended to have a “We’ll show you how to do it” attitude while the British had learned over decades of empire building that it was better to take an approach which said, “We’ll work with you and learn from you and try to work together on things.”
An example of the American approach: We saw the obvious need for water in the parched country, and set about drilling wells. But no one really had ownership of the wells, which meant that they weren’t maintained. Instead, nomads would come to the wells, make use of them, and then fill them in before moving on so the next group wouldn’t benefit.
I can still remember the quizzical but interested reaction that so many people in Somalia had when they saw Americans engaged in a project: “Who are you?” “Why are you doing it?” “Explain that to me again.”
The spirit was catching, and they would end up participating in all kinds of little volunteer activities and things that they hadn’t thought of doing themselves, all working together.
People ask me about the Peace Corps, and I always say that one of the things you have to remember about it is that you get a lot more than you give. You’re serving other people, and you can get great satisfaction from trying to make the world, or at least a small piece of it, a better place. And while you’re serving, you’re learning. You learn about another culture; and at the same time, you’re learning about your own country and your own experiences because of the points of contrast.
Questions for Discussion
1. What is your experience of active service for a cause or a charity? Did you see a lasting change brought about by your actions? How did it feel?
2. Have you experienced what Congressman Petri describes as a “We’ll show you how to do it” method of service? In what way?
3. What do you feel you get out of service to others? Or, what experience do you have of being served yourself?