Serving Humbly

Originally posted 11/26/18

Serving Humbly: A Reflection on Working to Respect the Dignity of Others While Serving

In the Twin Cities area, there are a large number of indigenous people who are homeless. Currently, around 300 of them are living in an encampment off of Highway 55/Hiawatha Avenue and Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. The geographical location has prompted many to call it the Hiawatha Franklin encampment, but it is also called “The Wall of Forgotten Natives”, a testament to how political processes on the city, state, and federal levels have failed to support their indigenous populations.

A St. Kate’s Masters of Holistic Health Studies student, Carmelita Sharpback, herself an indigenous person, heard about the Hiawatha encampment and wanted to help. Carmelita visited the camp to learn about the needs of the people there, intending to return later with blankets for warmth. She was told that the residents of the camp had plenty of blankets, but that hot meals were always needed.

That’s where the St. Kate’s Food Justice Coalition came in. The FJC is an on-campus student organization, which I am the president of, whose mission is to educate students about food insecurity while engaging them in solutions that benefit their peers and the greater community. Carmelita’s idea sprang to life: Organize ingredient donations and student volunteers to prepare and serve a hot meal at the Hiawatha encampment. She, two other students, and I were the team leaders for this project. Leading an event like this was a hands-on test of my knowledge of previous coursework in food service management, several semesters of experience in public speaking, and project management.

On Tuesday, October 23rd, at 3:30pm, our team of volunteers gathered to chop nearly 40 pounds of fresh produce, open dozens of cans, and begin preparing our chosen meal: vegan chili. After cooking, we packed the chili into insulated containers and loaded up the vehicles, and off we went. We arrived just after sunset, so the night air was quickly cooling. The people we served were excited to see us arrive with food and very appreciative of the hot meal on the chilly night. We made over 350 servings of chili, and when we were getting ready to leave, we were able to leave our leftovers at the camp so others could eat them later.

It was an enjoyable evening; everything went relatively smoothly and we did what we came to do. I find joy in serving others, and that’s definitely what we did! It’s been hard to come up with words to describe the experience we had serving at the camp. Most of the time, when I write about experiences I’ve had, I’m able to frame it positively and show how much fun it was to go and do and learn about whatever. But with this project, preparing this hot meal for the homeless encampment, it felt disrespectful to try and give it the same spin.

Unlike field trips or other experiences, this project was not done for ourselves, we didn’t do it for publicity, or attention, or to come in and “save” the people there. We learned that the people living in the camp were in need of a hot meal, we had the resources to provide them with one, and so we did. When my fellow team leaders I spoke to our volunteers about the project, we gave it this frame: The people living at the camp are living in the camp because they are homeless. Our government has failed to support them, and they do not have anywhere else that they can go. We are entering their home, so we will respect their space and their privacy as we enter. We are here because we support them and we know that they need a hot meal, and that’s what we are here to provide.

Since then, I’ve been working to bring the same level of humility into other areas of my life. Whether that’s serving students through the campus food shelf or doing case studies for my nutrition courses, I’ve taken to heart the idea that Carmelita so easily adopted: when wanting to do good for another person, it is important to ask what it is they need, rather than assuming what they need is something that I want to do. The encampment’s request for a hot meal turned into a project that I’m proud to have been a part of and will continue to reflect on for a long time to come.