As a student balancing a job, an internship, classes and various student organizations, it becomes easy to forget that the city streets I walk every day extend to a larger neighborhood outside the walls of my campus. Spending the summer in Boston has allowed me to renew my relationship with the city and reflect on my place in the greater community. As I gear up to graduate in December, and move to New Orleans for my next urban adventure, the chance to explore a new area of the city and make lasting connections with people is something I refuse to take for granted.
It’s eye-opening to see that no matter how long I live in an urban neighborhood, there are always unexplored areas or institutions waiting to be discovered. Located downtown, Newbury Street is lined with many designer stores and up-scale restaurants. As the weather gets warmer, performers come out to play their instruments and the tree-lined street fills with tourists shopping or sightseeing. Yet on this street, located less than a 10 minute walk from my campus in the basement of a church, lies Women’s Lunch Place. This “underground” non-profit provides a safe daytime shelter, healthy meals and other services for women who are homeless or poor. I discovered this well-hidden organization through the vice president of my professional sorority who’s in charge of the sisterhood’s philanthropy.
Upon entering, I walked down the stairs to a large open room with tables. Toward the back, a cafeteria-style kitchen displayed the food being served and volunteers with hair nets stood in a line behind the glass case as women decided what they wanted to eat. I volunteered there on a Saturday morning, serving breakfast and cooking lunch. As we met with the volunteer coordinator, she thanked us for coming, adding with a smile that the breakfast shift would be busy because they were serving pancakes and the women loved when they served pancakes.
I watched women of all ages come through: women with families, elderly women, women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and women from my neighborhood. They were all there for different reasons, but what really struck me was that there were women down the street from me who were struggling. The issues I’ve written about suddenly became all the more real as each woman came to get her food. I wondered how many low-income mothers looked at job posting but knew they didn’t have the education required or how many were homeless or poor after fleeing an abuser.
One of my sorority sisters who was volunteering with me saw a little girl whom she’d worked with in the past through volunteering at a different non-profit eating breakfast with her family. She came up asking for seconds, but was told to wait until all the women had been fed — a reminder that the intersection of issues like poverty, education and gender equity are all too real.
As we helped prepare chicken and potatoes for a chipotle chicken lunch dish, the kitchen manager talked about the organization’s original resources. She pointed to new appliances that made cooking in mass amounts easier and spoke with genuine, compassionate conviction about the need for volunteers. As a volunteer who retired only to become a staff member, she’d felt more than a desire to help these women, but a call to action. I found my first impressions of her shattered as she said how important it was for young women to volunteer and how she hoped to see us again. This is the true strength of the feminist movement: women on the ground helping other women every day.
For me, volunteering is always a humbling experience. It reminds me who I am and why I care about the things that I do. It reminds me that even though students are transient populations, we can engage and be a part of the greater urban community in a meaningful way. To those women whom I volunteered alongside or served breakfast to, it didn’t matter where I was from or how long I’d lived in Boston. It just mattered that I was there. In that kitchen, smiling at those women, it gave faces to my pleas for sisterhood or for an end to violence against women. It gave voices to articles about how low-income women, especially mothers, are the most affected by the wage gap. It gave names to the education inequality that low-income neighborhoods face.
In many of my columns, I talk about the abstract activism that can lead to the change society needs, but it’s important to remember that when it comes to altering the entire caste system in which we function the biggest changes must happen within our communities. Abstract activism, the kind that happens on feminist blogs and through national petitions, is imperative to this movement, but it has no context without serving in your community and understanding the women living down the street.
Service lets you form an in-person connection with issues in a way that a keyboard never could. Interacting with people online allows new connections to be made, but there is nothing more empowering than looking a woman in the eyes and seeing her struggle or listening to her story. I think it’s too easy, especially as a young activist in the digital age, to engage in a genre of activism that ends at a retweet or an online petition but never go farther. We should be using this technology to connect more face-to-face and better understand the full realm of these issues. I can tweet when I canvass for political campaigns to inspire other volunteers to come along. I can discover new organizations and causes that show up on my newsfeed. This network I have allows me to read more news and get involved in ways that the past generation could only imagine.
Every time I volunteer, it renews my passion like a breath of fresh air. I feel energized in my fight for equality, ready to take on an army of misogynist trolls or call every representative in Congress if that’s what it takes. My day at Women’s Lunch Place reminded me how easy it can be to miss what’s right in front of you if you’re not looking for the opportunity. Now that the Massachusetts Senate campaign is over, I’m excited to have my Saturday mornings free to spend volunteering at Women’s Lunch Place or some of my other favorite Boston non-profits. Finding organizations like this in Boston reminds me about the initiative necessary to stay involved and makes me look forward to spending my last few months here getting to know this city even better, so that when the time comes I’m ready to say goodbye.