Opening Words from Sun. April 12 by Nathan Schrenk

Good morning! My name is Nathan Schrenk, my pronouns are he/him. I’ve been a member of the Ethical Society for almost 4 years. I’ve been a member of the Society’s End Racism Team, and recently I’ve been nominated to serve on the Society’s board as a trustee in the upcoming year.

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been spending time, specifically volunteering or on activism.

Since the end of last year I’ve spent some time helping to organize a group of people working toward bringing more awareness to the history of racial violence in our region, with the belief that being honest about our history will be healing. This group has chosen the name Restorative Justice Coalition of St. Louis, and I’ve been working on it along with fellow Ethical Society member Kayla Vaughan and people from many other organizations, including the Missouri History Museum, Washington University, Jewish Community Relations Council, The Griot Museum, various churches, neighborhood organizations, and activists.

We have been inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, and have been drafting a proposal to EJI to get their support for remembrance efforts related to lynchings in St. Louis.

Back in February, when I signed up to give Opening Words today, I planned to talk about an event that the coalition was organizing for later in April. But that was all before COVID-19 transformed our lives. We obviously won’t be having any public event in April. Now I ask myself whether I should be spending the limited time I have available for volunteering or activism on this coalition, or should I suspend this work and find something else more urgent?

As of April 8, 12 people are known to have died of COVID-19 in the City of St Louis, and all 12 were Black. Nationally African Americans are 13% of the population and 40% of the COVID-19 cases. The tragic disparities of the present are connected to that violence in our society’s past that we have done so much to try to forget. Perhaps the remembrance work feels relevant & current with that framing? But making plans to raise awareness about history doesn’t do anything to help the people right now who are sick, or unemployed, or whose kids are not in school and who are struggling. Remembering history doesn’t feel urgent, even when the unhealed wounds are contributing to harm that it feels very urgent to address.

In addition to me questioning my own choices about how to spend time, lately I’ve seen some people criticizing the way another person chooses to volunteer. A man who is married to a doctor expressed anger on social media at the volunteers sewing masks to donate to medical providers: he opined that anyone who cared about lack of personal protective equipment should stop sewing and focus their efforts on trying to get proper PPE in the hands of medical staff. It was such a different perspective than I had seen from others that I re-shared it, which I now regret doing. I know he’s feeling anxiety about his spouse’s safety, but lashing out at how others are choosing to be of service seems like the wrong approach to me.

Similarly, when members of the St. Louis maker community came together to make plastic face shields with their 3D printers and laser cutters, I saw someone tell the volunteers they were misguided and should spend their time on something else because a factory with a high volume manufacturing line for face shields was expected to be operating within a couple weeks, dwarfing the output from the volunteers.

I will endeavor to not be “that guy”. I don’t want to demotivate someone else from volunteering their time in the way they choose, even if I think it’s suboptimal. I will strive to be compassionate with others and also with myself. We should be thoughtful about how we spend our time, and periodically consider whether we could make changes to be more effective at our activism or volunteer work. And when circumstances change, like they have with COVID-19, it’s useful to consider what we should change about how we spend our time.

But we should also recognize that volunteering is an exchange and that we are doing it because we receive something back and maybe trying to optimize volunteer work to maximize output or reach more people or whatever would change things in a way that reduces that benefit to us enough that it destroys our motivation, and we’d stop. Some progress is usually better than no progress.

Thank you.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.