Screw “service.”

13 September 2008

I think the moment that I got my current job was the moment in my job interview when they asked me about my experience working with volunteers. I paused. “I’ll get to that in a second,” I said. “But I don’t believe that anyone’s a volunteer.”

What I meant by this is that everyone is drawn into organizing by their self-interests. What’s the difference between me and my leaders? Well, one of my self-interests is the money they pay me. That’s it, fundamentally. Other than that, we’re just at different places in terms of learning to build relationships and build power in order to secure greater degrees of justice and fairness in our community. There’s no secret organizer cabal keeping secrets from leaders. (If there is, you’re doing it wrong.)

So it grates a little to hear about Barack Obama’s “service.” I don’t know what that means. Yes, he gave up the opportunity for a high-paying job and went to work as an organizer. But that wasn’t a self-sacrificing move, that is, one contrary to his self-interests. It was a choice between competing self-interests, of the kind we all make every day.

I’m hungry but I don’t want to be late for this meeting. I have to choose. I can spend the next five minutes answering a call from my sister, or replying to an email from my dad. I have to choose. The power of one-on-ones, the power of an ever-more-clear-headed understanding of our own self-interests, is that we can make choices. That’s what grown-ups do.

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