It’s About Changing Myself

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


December 30, 2010

For a long time, I thought Global Citizen Year was about changing the world.  It always bothered me when my friends or family applauded me for “saving the world”—that’s not what I’m doing at all.  But, part of my intent of taking a bridge year was to make sustainable, systemic change.  Part of GCY’s intent is making a change. The U.S. training institute ignited questions and illustrated real life examples of movers and shakers.  We were fortunate enough to meet many powerful social entrepreneurs.  Our month of orientation prepared us with information on our countries’ history, politics, environments, and health and education systems. Going into the field, we were equipped with knowledge, experience, a network, curiosity, and determination. We went in itching to create change, yet the most important thing we could do was observe.

The thing about beginning GCY, is that as much as you try to ignore it, there’s a little, hidden piece of you that thinks you’re going to save the world. Think again. You’re probably not going to create a sustainable microfinance business, or change the school system in rural Brazil.  It’s unrealistic to expect to get Starbucks to invest in the small scale coffee business you volunteer at, or somehow find enough doctors to staff the poor maternity ward in a Senegalese village. I’m just beginning to realize that Global Citizen Year was never about changing the world—it’s about letting the world change you.

This year is about listening to Abuelita tell stories about her panaderia and how she baked the best bread in all of Ibarra. It’s about learning that I control my loneliness, and that my loneliness does not depend on who or what I am, or am not, with. This is realizing that every group of men on the street corner isn’t going to rob me and that even though I was attacked by a domestic dog, the stray dogs generally just want food.  It’s the feeling I get when the students I teach hug my knees and shout “Tia Lily! (Auntie Lily), and the excitement I felt after my first dream in Spanish. It’s learning to love that rooster that begins his alarm clock at three a.m. GCY is when the mother of the worst behaved student tells me her daughter comes home and demonstrates the yoga she learned that day, or diligently writes out all of the English greetings we went over. It’s feeling a sense of ownership for Pastoral Migratoria, the organization I work for that supports Colombian refugees, when someone falsely accuses us of supporting immigrants financially—a sense of ownership over my street, my city, my family. It’s the familiar smell of choclo and queso (grilled corn and cheese) that the indigenous woman by my house sells every night, the dusty cobblestone roads, the pasture where old men bring horses and cows to graze all day.

This year is about discovering who I am and who I want to be.  It’s being sick away from home for the first time. I’m learning to ask for help when I need it, to be homesick in front of mi familia and to explain to them why I feel this way without being ashamed.  I am learning that, although emotions are frightening, they are also normal and healthy.  I don’t need to hide from them, but instead embrace grief or anxiety in the same way I embrace cheerfulness and accomplishment.  This year is teaching me that meaningful relationships require more commitment than I’ve ever been comfortable giving. I must take risks and open myself up. And the relationships I’m forming from these risks are deeper and more powerful than I’ve ever had before. It’s being scared, uncomfortable, and unsure of myself, and being completely okay with that.  This year is opening my eyes to the uncertain, opening my heart and ears, inspiring self, inspiring others, and allowing myself to be inspired. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

Lily Shaffer