“Ask not what your city can do for you,” said DC Mayor Vincent Gray at his inauguration two weeks ago. “Ask what you can do for your city.”
Gray’s reiterating of President Kennedy’s famous speech reminds us that 2011 cannot only motivate personal improvement, but also inspire contributions to our community. Adopt five New Year’s resolutions to do just that:
Donate Food – Hunger is a huge problem in Washington. A down economy and high unemployment have left over 600,000 DC residents hungry, including an estimated 200,000 kids. The Capital Area Food Bank collects and delivers food to 700 partner agencies. “It’s life’s most basic need,” says communications manager Shamia Holloway.
But for the primarily “working poor” population who struggle with child care, transportation and rent expenses, “it’s the easiest budget item to cut.” Ironically Americans waste, on average, a half a pound of food daily. So donate produce or nonperishable items to the Capital Area Food Bank, Martha’s Table, or another worthy organization that serves the city’s hungry.
Volunteer in the Schools – More than half of DC public schools’ third graders read below grade level. Mount Pleasant resident and Obama canvasser Mark D’Agostino saw this as a challenge. After the 2008 election, he and a few friends used their volunteer list and free weekends to start the Grassroots Education Project. About 60 volunteers help Tubman Elementary School students learn to read on Saturday mornings, often searching for books that target kids’ interests. “It’s really inspiring to see the initiative they show and how much they enjoy working with the kids,” says D’Agostino. It’s effective too; twice as many children in the program achieve grade-level reading compared to those not in it. DCPS certifies volunteers who want to work with kids and e-mails them opportunities, suggesting they then coordinate with local schools.
Green It Up – Exposure to nature has been linked to stress reduction, a longer attention span and more creativity. But many in the US are getting out less. Residents in one of America’s greenest cities have no excuse not to visit and live off the land. Bike on the Rock Creek Park or go hiking at Great Falls. Sign up for a plot in one of over 50 community gardens in DC or the suburbs, or build a backyard vegetable garden. Compost. The benefits? Relaxation, fresh vegetables, camaraderie and, of course, keeping DC beautiful.
Appreciate the Arts – DC’s cultural scene is thriving on the whole, but some organizations are struggling. Fortunately, Washington will have especially compelling historical, political, cultural and literary offerings in 2011. Bring a friend to enjoy the city’s many scenes. Glance at Richard Avedon’s pictures of President Kennedy or immerse yourself in India during The Kennedy Center’s March festival. Watch the civil rights movement unfold at the National Museum of American History, or listen to indigenous voices speak about climate change at the National Museum of the American Indian. Laugh through the Folger’s “The Comedy of Errors,” or contemplate the cost of your iPhone at Woolly Mammoth’s upcoming production of Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. The result is a spiritual yet paradoxical reward: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” said monk Thomas Merton.
Tip Well – DC had the greatest income inequality of large cities, according to a DC Fiscal Policy Institute study that analyzed census data from 2000. Since then, the city has seen stock of low income housing drop and a tremendous influx of high-income neighborhoods, says DCFPI Director Ed Lazere. Help out by emulating New York, which has a culture of extensive and generous tipping. Tip staff members who keep you glamorous, fed, healthy and safe – and don’t forget the workers mostly behind the scenes. The benefits will accrue to overqualified staff, underemployed citizens and those otherwise struggling.
Enrich others as well as our schools, theaters, museums and parks in 2011. Keeping DC growing and green will benefit both Washington and Washingtonians.