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The Hokey Pokey as Mantra & Manifesto
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Note: Pro Bono Net is partnering with Martindale-Hubbell Connected to promote pro bono April 16-30. Below is the second of a series of guest blog posts on Pro Bono Net's Connected group, contributed by Cristin Zeisler, Partner & Pro Bono Services at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Join Connected to read the rest of the series in coming days, and register for a webinar April 22 on "Pro Bono & Your Career."
The Hokey Pokey as Mantra & Manifesto
Sometimes (particularly on Mondays), I wear a silver, engraved pendant give to me by a former Peace Corps-Ukraine colleague. It says “What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?”
Out of context, this is a cute, memorable phrase. In context (which I’ll provide shortly), it becomes both mantra and manifesto. I wear it on Mondays to help me channel both the peace of the mantra and the urgency of the manifesto. Because National Volunteer Week begins today, it seems an auspicious time to recount how the hokey pokey, in the context of volunteering, drove me to the depths of despair and provided me with epic, enlightened salvation. Through this tale, I hope you’ll come to view your own volunteer opportunities from a different and important perspective: that of your clients.
October 2002: I was bawling my eyes out at LAX as I bid goodbye to my family, loved ones and dog to board a series of planes that would eventually deposit me in the rural heart of Ukraine. Goodbye nice roads, running water, friendly customer service & cushy law firm paycheck; Hello opposite of all that!
Leaving behind love and luxury was a challenge, of course, but it felt more than mitigated by the prospect using my years of corporate lawyering skills to help Ukrainians transition from a post-Soviet to nascent-Market economy. Finally, a chance to use my knowledge of capital markets and regulatory systems to help spur real change on a massive scale (rather than just making my rich clients richer)! Yeah, baby – bring it on...
January 2003: After several months of intense language learning and massive cultural adjustment enhanced by having lived with a Ukrainian family in a village with less than 1,000 inhabitants, I met “Oleg,” the head of the Institute where I would teach university-level students for the next ~20 months. Oleg was very pleased that I was not a fresh-from-college graduate (still the predominant cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers). And he was over-the-moon with happiness to learn that I had such a strong corporate/business background. We agreed that we’d make a perfect pair to revolutionize commercial practice in the city of Kirovograd!
It was quickly decided that I would teach: Business Communications, Business Ethics, Comparative Corporate Law, Human Rights, and Market Infrastructure. This induced simultaneous feelings of elation (I know this stuff!) and panic (how in the heck does one teach this stuff?!?). Thus began a month of round-the-clock self-study on pedagogical methods, culminating in five beautiful syllabi replete with case studies, group projects, and other fabulous experiential learning models.
June 2003: When you have to fail 7/8 of your Business Ethics class for cheating (plagiarism), and your Business Communications students still can’t grasp the concept of dividing a 20- member class into 5 groups of 4 by counting off and moving, and the vast majority of the rest of your students showed up for significantly less than 1/3 of their classes yet felt entitled to harass you into giving them a “good” grade ... well, you’re bound to feel a “little” defeated. Revolutionizing commercial practice in the city of Kirovograd, my arse...
Sensing my disillusionment, the Institute’s co-director offered to send me to a river resort so I could relax and regroup. In my original journal the description of this “resort” runs ~3 pages and includes key phrases like: rag-tag, downtrodden, and mosquito-infested. I go on to describe great consternation upon discovering that not only will I not be relaxing at this (non)resort, I will be expected to teach English to 2-dozen kids. I don’t really like kids (especially in large groups) and I really, really don’t like teaching English to them.
Had I known that I would need to plan activities and lesions, I would have come prepared and I would’ve done a bang-up job of teaching the kids something bordering on useful, or at least interesting. Instead, given my utter lack of resources (mental, geographic & physical) I merely devised not-so-clever ways of stretching out chores and nap-times and harkened back to childhood games and songs. At the end of day two, I asked the two 18-year-old camp assistants to reflect on what they liked best from the day. Breaking staunch Ukrainian tradition, these two girls absolutely lit up with some tremendous smiles of obvious elation as they enthusiastically and whole-heartedly agreed that learning the Hokey Pokey was like a life-altering event for them.
They had never had so much fun in all their lives. They not only learned the English names for parts of the body, they also learned a great song that they would surely teach to all generation of their offspring.
Their exclamations sent me to the depths of despair.
Peace Corps is supposed to be the “experience of a lifetime.” Great-god-almighty. Was teaching the Hokey Pokey to twenty Ukrainian kids really what I wanted to be my defining lifetime experience? Had I really left behind all my loved ones and my financially (and occasionally mentally) rewarding job so that I could teach the Hokey-friggin-Pokey to a bunch of hicks in a Ukrainian swamp? Was this really the higher calling I had sought when I signed up for Peace Corps? Was teaching the Hokey Pokey going to help Ukraine or Ukrainians in any real and meaningful way?
No, no, no and no again.
Enter 3 weeks of legitimate travel (Hungary, Croatia, Italy) with my beloved (bless him for standing by me while I was 10,000 miles away) and I started develop a different perspective...
September 2003-June 2004: I adjust my attitude and my expectations. Rather than worrying about how I make the most of my admittedly awesome (wink) lawyer-brain, I start thinking about what these young Ukrainians really need and want for themselves. It’s not about me trying to attain a “peak experience” on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s about me ensuring that the needs of others are truly being met.
So I retrenched and revamped and decided that while Institute might call a course “Market Infrastructure,” I was going to just help my students get comfortable with asking and answering the question “why?” Once they got comfortable with that (which took many months), we moved on to “how?” And from there, the students were ready to tackle a project called “___________ is a Problem in my Country and I Have the Power to Do Something About It.”
They variously filled in the blank with: corruption, AIDS, orphaned children, alcoholism and other topics and then wrote out action plans for how they might take on an advocacy or activist role in addressing these concerns.
October 2004: After three months of specialized meetings with a small group of students who were concerned about the problems faced by orphaned children, we developed and unveiled the “One Big Family” mentoring program – a first of its kind in Ukraine. This program combined American-style organization with Ukrainian-infused cultural modifications. It was a model of collaborative effort, with all authors and participants thoughtfully developing a program that could be adapted to fit the needs of local populations.
With the help of ~20 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the country and the financial support of legions of local and U.S. businesses, we launched a program for 30 kids paired with college-aged mentors. The launch party included instruction in how to play baseball, an excursion to the market to learn how to negotiate prices, some reading and relay activities, and some spontaneous singing and dancing. Toward the end of the long, fun, exhausting day someone began arranging the children and mentors in a big circle and when they began to sing “You put your left foot in ...” I started to bawl just as hard as I had back in October of 2002.
Except this time they were tears of pure joy.
As I wrote in my journal that day: “Too often in our work here we feel weighed down by the general feeling of helplessness that pervades our lives. Spending time with the orphans reminded us all of the goals that we had when we came here: to make a difference; to make life better, easier, happier. Transforming the day for innocent trusting children is at least as important as attempting to transform an entire economy. And knowing that anyone can do this – that we all have the power to create dramatic change in the lives of others – makes me feel like anything is possible.”
So ... maybe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.
By tapping into the part of us that is universally able to connect with others, we can transcend the limitations that come from trying to tap only that which we believe is our “best and highest use” and instead help others reach higher levels themselves.
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