“We have a saying...in the Peace Corps, which I think applies...now...: ‘If you want to change the world, start small.’ For it is only in the context of the concrete, the immediate, even the trivial — that the big words — words like justice and opportunity and humanity will take on meaning.”
Our Quote of the Week guides us towards the loftiest of goals, that of changing the world. It reminds us that ambitious change can start immediately, so long as we begin with one small, concrete step.
In 1965, Sargent Shriver gave this address to the graduating students at St. John’s University in New York. In the speech, Shriver describes how his young audience can internalize the true meaning of the things they have learned throughout the course of their education by fully engaging with the world.
By interacting with people different than ourselves, argues Shriver, by exploring different places in the country and around the world, and, importantly, by serving others, we can slowly but steadily take the steps needed to understanding and alleviating the suffering caused by discrimination, poverty, and injustice.
Given that Shriver is leading both the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty at the time he gives the address, he is able to provide examples from both of these experiences. He cites the instance of Peace Corps Volunteers in the Dominican Republic who were not seen as the other, “malditos Americanos” (cursed, or terrible, Americans), but as part of the local community because, as one Dominican resident put it: “You’re different. You live with us. When we’re hungry—you’re hungry. When we walk through the mud—you walk through the mud.” And he refers to the example of the VISTA volunteer who quickly learned the needs of the community in which she was serving in La Colonia, California, when one mother asked her to start a nursery school, saying: “It would be helpful because the children get restless and cranky when we lock them in the cars all day while we cut grapes.”
Today, Shriver’s words continue to remind us that if we look around with openness and curiosity, we can see that there is no shortage of opportunities to connect with others and to serve in communities across the the country and beyond. As long as we have the willingness to take one small, concrete step outside ourselves, that step has the potential of propelling us on the odyssey of a lifetime: that of changing the world.