I had the good fortune of being able to present at the 17th Annual Continuums of Service Conference that was held April 2nd through April 5th, 2014 in Honolulu, Hawaii alongside my fellow Richter Center Ambassadors. The Ambassador team, in my humble opinion, did a wonderful job presenting an interactive session on how to best tell your ‘Story of Service’ to a diverse audience to most effectively garner their support and increase their knowledge of your cause. While the goal of the Ambassadors was to help all conference attendees learn how to tell their own story of service, there was one person in attendance who was an absolute expert on the intricacies of story-telling and from whom the Ambassadors learned so much wonderful information.
Rev. Puanani Burgess, a “mediator, community developer, facilitator of community-building and conflict transformation…, mother of three, and ordained Zen Buddhist priest” (as described on the API Women, Faith & Action website) gave a truly moving keynote speech to begin the conference. Her skill in story-telling was beyond compare and her thoughts on conflict resolution and mediation were brilliant. While she told many stories to explain her personal philosophy as it pertains to community, one stands especially clearly in my mind. I found a copy of the condensed version here.
One of the processes I use to help people talk to each other I call Building the Beloved Community. There’s an exercise that requires people to tell three stories.
The first is the story of all of your names. The second is the story of your community. The third story I ask them to tell is the story of your gift.
One time, I did this process with a group in our local high school. We went around the circle and we got to this young man, and he told the story of his names well and the story of his community well, but when it came time to tell the story of his gift, he asked, “What, Miss? What kind gift you think I get, eh? I stay in this special ed class and I get a hard time read and I cannot do that math. And why you make me shame for, ask me that kind question? What kind gift you have? If I had gift, you think I be here?”
He just shut down and shut up, and I felt really shamed. In all the time I have ever done that, I have never, never shamed anybody before.
Two weeks later, I am in our local grocery store, and I see him down one of those aisles and I see his back and I’m going down there with my cart and I think “Nope I’m not going there.” So I start to back up as fast as I can and I’m trying to run away from him. And then he turns around and he sees me, and he throws his arms open, and he says, “Aunty! I have been thinking about you, you know. Two weeks I have been thinking: ‘What my gift? What my gift?’ ”
I say “OK bruddah, so what’s your gift?”
He says, “You know, I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking. I cannot do that math stuff and I cannot read so good, but Aunty, when I stay in the ocean, I can call the fish, and the fish he come, every time. Every time I can put food on my family table. Every time. And sometimes when I stay in the ocean and the Shark he come, and he look at me and I look at him and I tell him, ‘Uncle I not going take plenty fish. I just going to take one, two fish, just for my family. All the rest I leave for you.’ And so the Shark he say, ‘Oh, you cool, brother.’ And I tell the Shark, ‘Uncle, you cool.’ And the Shark, he go his way and I go my way.”
And I look at this boy and I know what a genius he is, and I mean, certifiable. But in our society, the way schools are run, he is rubbish. He is totally destroyed, not appreciated at all. So when I talked to his teacher and the principal of the school, I asked them what would his life have been like if this curriculum were gift-based? If we were able to see the gift in each of our children and taught around that gift? What would happen if our community was gift-based? If we could really understand what the gift of each of our communities were, and really began to support that?
So that for me is a very native approach—being able to see the giftedness in every aspect of life.
Hearing Puanani Burgess speak about what it means to find the gifts in others—and yourself—was one of the brightest moments of a truly wonderful weekend learning about best practices in community engagement and service-learning, one of my passions. Now that the conference is over and life at Fresno State picks up where it left off, I find myself wondering how I can continue to incorporate the teachings of Rev. Burgess into my daily life. How can I ‘see the giftedness in others’? How can you do the same? Do you have any tips or tricks that allow you to see a person’s (more than superficial, trite, or banal) worth? Share your thoughts below and, as you go about your day, make a conscious effort to appreciate the gifts of those whom you meet. I promise that the reward of doing so and appreciating the sundry talents of our community is many and truly gratifying!