The Small Work in the Great Work: Homecoming Reflections

Alexandra Ding - Senegal


July 24, 2014

“Iiiiiin West Metro Minneapolis born and raised / on the playground is where I spent most of my days.”

Like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I was raised on the playground—in cul-de-sacs dotted with sprightly lawns, weather-hardened gravel, and roving bands of kid-cops and preteen-robbers.

Time has changed much, but play—discovered in tire-swings and trampolines; sustained in people, passions, and relationship—remains at the core of my worldview.

Choosing in 2013 to take a bridge year with Global Citizen Year, I picked play over college: I ditched the textbooks, and donned a chofnay (sun-hat in Fula) and became a full-time Senegalese farmer. For seven months, I lived under the gaze of an ancient baobob tree, on a beautiful farm and garden two kilometers from the Guinean border.

There, I helped to build a first small playground of purpose. Alongside local leaders, community members, Hassana, my host family, and Women’s Groups, we began construction on a chain-linked Co-Opt Community Garden in a rural Senegalese village. Building a garden is challenging, but there is play plentiful to be found in tea breaks in between stake-digging and afternoons passed under the ever-ripening mango tree. In time, I hope our agricultural play will grow: to innovative agricultural and agroforestry techniques such as those practiced by Peace Corps Master Farmers: live-fencing, tree-grafting, mulching and organic composting.

The experience got me thinking about the relationship between play and service. Play paired with purpose, I am learning, lends itself organically, almost effortlessly to the service of a collective vision. Play and service revealed themselves to me to be two united forces of a single provenance, something like lost-but-now-found twins. I was delighted!

During re-entry training, Stace Lindsay, the director of Global Citizen Year’s board, spoke candidly and relevantly about his service experiences in Latin America. He quoted Rev. Victoria Safford, a Unitarian Universalist minister from a town in Minnesota thirty minutes from mine:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope-not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truthtelling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we’re seeing, asking people what they see.”

Safford’s words have become a sort of manifesto to me, a Bible of Social Justice, a Core text, of my own notions of service, ethics, and justice. Listening to Stace first read Safford’s words to me, I remember thinking, in that half-dazed, just-returned-home state of being, a whole new understanding was unfolding before me.

It is easy, I think, to become angry. To creak upon “shrill and angry” hinges. To yell (at others in expectation they share in this plight with you) and to yell some more (when their blasé, apathetic response seems empty, not enough). But to fight force with brute force is neglect one half of a whole, rejecting play, and inviting only deafness. Perpetuating deafness is not the goal, and it is not the means either.

I used to be angry. I creaked on “shrill” hinges. But Safford’s words remind me of the paradigm of “hope” over indignant “self-righteousness.” To embrace play, and to reject scorn in its bitterness, and anger in its misplaced judgments. Great change follows in course, I think, when we cultivate play with purpose, and in time, our vision of what might be, what could be, what will be, is inevitable, deafening to others.

When I look to the future, I am hopeful. I have only to discover the “places,” like Global Citizen Year, Safford writes, “where history is met by the hope of the human soul,” to be reminded of “life’s longing for itself.”

Global Citizen Year, and this experience in Senegal, has helped me to better imagine my role in the “Great Work.” I offer this to the world: a disposition for, and commitment to play—in all its giddy and unrepentant youth—and, in playing, help to work towards building a better world. It is the small work, in the Great Work.

Alexandra Ding