May 3, 2010

Kyoto Now and Darfur? How About Ithaca?

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It would be unfair to charge Cornell students with dispassion. After all, we are far from ignorant and are aware of the problems plaguing our world today. We often, if not too often, see Cornell students host charity events or ask for donations. Every time we cross Ho Plaza, we are likely to encounter a fraternity advertising an event to fight an illness or an organization raising awareness for a disability.

But this constant solicitation for noble causes may not be an absolutely good thing. The reality, unfortunately, is that our campus has become so oversaturated with monetary requests that we have become desensitized to the causes themselves. Though we may give a dollar to malaria with noble intentions, we will never see the true impact it will have on the mosquito-infested villages. And before long, we will also forget whatever our motivation was to donate in the first place.

In this seemingly endless cycle of giving and receiving donations, we have lost touch with our humanness, forgetting the reasons for our fundraising efforts in the first place. Perhaps we should reevaluate how we express our generosity and search for other means to channel our magnanimity.  Perhaps we should imbue our lofty ambitions with a bit of humility. That is, we need to begin funneling our altruism into the local community where we can see our efforts put into action in order to avoid this desensitization.

I sat down with Svante Myrick ’09 this past weekend in Libe Café. A discussion that initially intended to focus on his involvement in the Ithaca Youth Council quickly drifted to the importance of community involvement. Surprisingly, Svante, who is one of the country’s youngest elected public officials and currently represents Ithaca’s fourth ward, described himself as never being overly ambitious.

Despite his modest beginnings — he was raised in impoverished conditions with three other siblings — he has managed to oversee the creation of the Ithaca Youth Council and several other projects aimed at infusing young people with life skills. And what was his reply when I asked him to name his proudest achievements? He recalled the differences he made in his students, many of whom were originally bound for unpromising futures but now have a world of possibilities ahead of them.

Should we be inspired by his story and follow his path? Sure, but there is a greater lesson we must take away: His motivation is not rooted in his ambition to rid the world of its problems, but founded in seeing the differences made by his actions. His accomplishments have taught us that we do not need to change the world in order for our efforts to be significant. Indeed, no one can claim his impact on the surrounding Ithaca area is less significant than the efforts by Cover Africa in Ghana. In fact, as Svante said, it would be difficult to change the world without first changing our local communities.

It is expected, as Cornellians, that we tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. We tenaciously pursue world peace and try to end genocide — sometimes simultaneously. But the fact is that these idealistic visions, though admirable, are not a starting place, but an ultimate end. Our answers to problems must start small and grow big to be effective or else we risk losing motivation to continue our quests.

So where can we start? Here in our own backyard.

It is a pity that Cornell sits on top of a hill when it is already atop an Ivory Tower: It only makes it that much more inaccessible to outsiders. Despite the plethora of resources we possess — the grants, the professors, the libraries, the laboratories and, most importantly, the students — we rarely spread the wealth. Yes, I know: We have developed cancer treatments, contrived economic models and engineered medical contraptions, but in our pursuit of these goals, we tend to lose sight of the ultimate purposes for them: It is not for us that we engage in these projects, but for those who need them.

It is even more of a pity that we are surrounded by a community in need of these resources — that we have 20,000 students who possess a vast and diverse array of knowledge that would be enthusiastically welcomed by local children if we would share them. But instead these advantages are only afforded to those within our academic circles.

It is easy to give a dollar, but it takes true commitment to personally interact with those in need. No matter how much money we raise or how much awareness we spread, we cannot feel the true gratification of advocating for a cause unless we are directly involved with the individuals who are afflicted. Rather than immediately jumping to improve our country’s education system, why not start by volunteering as tutor in a distressed local school? And instead of solving global warming, why not initiate a recycling program in Tompkins County?

So take a break from studying, walk over to the Public Service Center at Barnes Hall, and volunteer for a local project. A few hours out of your day means a little less sleep for you, but it may mean the future for those you help.

Steven Zhang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang