Reflection: Givers & Takers

“My mind was blown,” revealed the email. “How could people I didn’t know be willing to cover my entire trip?” 

I love these serendipitous surprises. It’s the best part of my job. A former student, unexpectedly and unannounced, reaches out to me and—with a deep sense of gratitude—reflects positively on the impact UrbanPromise has on their lives.

Fifteen years have evaporated since a 16-year-old Vernon Mincey traveled to South Africa for a Habitat for Humanity service project with our program. He remembers as if it happened yesterday—precise, clear and defining. 

“I was exposed to a world I didn’t know existed,” he wrote. “I remember returning to my south Camden neighborhood with a sense of duty....constantly reminding younger kids that they didn’t have to become a product of their environment....and challenging them to do better and better.”

Vernon now works as a Field Technician with Maser Consulting, an engineering firm specializing in municipal building projects throughout the Delaware Valley. Every fourth Friday the company collects money for a local charity. This past month, Vernon nominated UrbanPromise with a compelling and heartfelt letter to the CEO, sharing the impact UrbanPromise had on his life growing up in Camden.

“With your contributions on this charitable donation Friday,” implored Vernon, “I am hoping to help give another inner city child an opportunity to have their heart and eyes opened.” UrbanPromise was selected. Last Friday, $1,500 was collected from the employees at Maser. 

This gift—and the story behind it—is a wonderful encouragement to my soul in the middle of a long and tiring pandemic. But beyond the gift, a deeper question is elevated—why do some people feel compelled to “give back” to the people (and organizations, schools, churches, camps) who impact their lives, whereas others do not?

According to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, the world is full of what he calls “givers” and “takers.” Givers are those living their lives for others—always exploring ways to improve and develop people around them. Givers live beyond self interest. According to Grant’s research, “givers” are the people you want on your teams and in your companies. Their presence leads to greater creativity, greater trust, sharing of knowledge and greater efficiencies—even at the cost of their personal advancement.

“Takers,” on the other hand, are those advancing their own agenda, striving to get “one up” on their colleagues and protecting their self interest. They can rise quickly in their careers, but on teams they thwart productivity, diminish creativity and create cultures of low trust. Grant argues that many of us fall somewhere between. He calls these folk “Matchers”—matching one good deed of altruism against a deed of self interest. So here’s the question I want to answer: are people born as givers?  Or takers? Or Matchers?

Kurt Hahn—the German educator of Jewish origin who taught at the prestigious Salem Castle boarding school in the 1930s and refused to sign a loyalty pledge to Hitler—believed “givers” can be nurtured. As Nazism rose to prominence, Hahn fled for his life and landed at the Gordonstown School in Scotland. There he converted to Christianity, renounced his German citizenship, and found his educational imagination illuminated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Hahn developed the theory and practice of “experiential learning”,* believing that knowledge, in and of itself, is insufficient for flourishing lives.

“How do we help children become Good Samaritans?” asked Hahn. He believed the parable embodied everything for which a human should aspire—courage, faith, generosity, compassion, attentiveness, tribal transcendence.... Yes, Hahn believed in the rigors of good academics. But Nazism reminded him that intelligent people can do horrific things. Young people need to develop virtue, bravery, self-reliance and compassion. For Hahn the Good Samaritan was an aspirational story with potential to inspire students to transcend the limitations of race, ideology and indifference. A new generation of Good Samaritans—he believed—could protect the world from descending into madness. 

Realizing the Good Samaritan is just a story—a parable told by Jesus—its enduring power is that we can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative. Each of us can certainly relate to walking past situations inviting a response. I can certainly identify with the priest who rushes to his next appointment, missing the opportunity in his path....or the legal scholar who can rationalize away his ambivalence.

But the Samaritan intrigues us....why does he act so differently? Where does he learn courage, compassion, hospitality?  Maybe from a caring mother, a courageous grandparent, an unassuming compassionate neighbor? Perhaps the Samaritan, as a child, received an unexpected generous gift...a trip paid for by an anonymous donor? Like Vernon.

Jesus obviously believed we could nurture Samaritan-like habits. Otherwise why share the story? If we can’t change, can’t grow, can’t become more giving people....why tell this parable? By telling the story, Jesus gives us humans a tremendous compliment. Jesus is basically saying: “I believe anyone can become an extraordinary giver.” 

“So much of history is made up of small moves,” wrote Seyward Darby. “Hope, too, dwells in increments.”  Vernon now lives his life as a giver—a young man who wants to pay it forward. That’s hopeful. That’s incremental. And if enough of us do it together, we’ll change the world.

Grateful—

Bruce Main

PS. Check out this interview with Vernon. He recalls his time at UrbanPromise: https://vimeo.com/442065188

*As many of you already know, “experiential” learning is a major focus at UrbanPromise. 

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