Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bird Blocks

Grace Afsari-Mamagani '13

Several days ago, I was making the walk back from Union Square when a man approached me to ask if I'd buy him lunch.
I hesitated momentarily, but made the short walk with him to Burger King while he described himself as a struggling artist originally from Tennessee. He seemed out of place among the ritzy shops and bustling crowds, as though longing for something much simpler that incessantly evaded him.
"Things are rough," he told me.

We set out relatively early Friday morning on our last day of service, spent in Oakland with the East Bay branch of Habitat for Humanity. Given my aversion to heights and power saws, I elected to stick to painting bird blocks under the supervision of Carrie, an AmeriCorps member whose dreams of attending veterinary school had been crushed by a severe allergy to nearly every land mammal in existence. After five hours spent applying coats of dark grey paint to these wood-and-screen pieces (and, inadvertently, to my hands and clothing), I discovered I still didn't quite understand what bird blocks are. While Carrie offered some explanation involving eaves and ventilation, it struck me that this menial task served as just one of many that go into building one of Habitat's homes. Those dozens of bird blocks came to encapsulate the ASB experience for me: the task seemed trivial, detached, and somewhat incomprehensible, but a group of families would be unable to enjoy their new homes without them.
Throwing ketchup packets onto trays at Glide and piecing together office chairs at Larkin reminded me that the small things really are important. No one can address a larger problem without first laying a foundation. It is only if we use the building blocks at our disposal — literal construction pieces, words, skill sets, or otherwise — that we will enact change. "Things are rough" for so many people, whether they're struggling on the streets of the Tenderloin, in our own communities, or on the Dartmouth campus.
As I write from thousands of miles above the United States, and as the majority of our group members prepare to return to the Dartmouth bubble, I feel the need to emphasize openness and patience. I think we've all had our perceptions and beliefs challenged over the past week and a half; we've all had to reconsider the way we see others, to rethink the way we convey our thoughts. The man whose lunch I bought Thursday appeared comparatively well-dressed and clean, perhaps straying from my idea of the typical poverty-stricken man compelled to beg for food. But to question his intentions would have required me to impose this preconception upon him. I know I made little impact upon his big picture — just as we, as a collective, probably made little impact upon San Francisco's big picture. But the hug I received as I left him to his meal established for me that it's not always about the big picture: it's about conversations, personal exchanges, sincere smiles and gratitude. It's about listening, both to the residents of People's Park and to your closest friends. Because sometimes it's easy to get lost in the immediacy of everything that's rough in your own life. Sometimes it's easy to shut out those who disagree with you and to feel uncomfortable around those who differ from you. I guess the moral of the story is to remain cognizant and trusting, despite the effort that this often requires. And, simply, to have a little faith.

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