A fad is a trend is a change…or is it?

Rotary International emblem

Image via Wikipedia

As long as I can remember, one of the public’s consistent criticisms of the news media has been, “It’s all so depressing, bad, and horrible. Where’s the good news?” In response some newspapers tried publishing papers with only good news. Nobody read them. Nobody bought them. Bad news, it seems, was far more commercially attractive. But I think that’s changing.

Go to any company website these days and you likely will find a pull-down tab where you can read all about their philanthropic and community work. The behemoth and recently-maligned-for-not-paying-taxes GE, for instance, has a nice page on their website explaining how they are being good citizens.  Here’s the link: http://citizenship.geblogs.com/

Everywhere corporations, small businesses, universities are all touting their good deeds. Their own brand of “good news.” Go to any high school in America and examine the profiles of their top students.  Look closely and you will see lists of selfless accomplishments on their resumes — addendums to credentials that exceed their requisite 4.8 GPAs and perfect SAT scores. As one adviser for college applicants told me, everybody vying for top spots in colleges and universities looks the same. They are all out to save the world.

Seeing the ubiquity of these efforts — which are undeniably positive, important and genuine — I have to wonder, is it a fad, a trend, or a permanent change?

The cynic in me knows that many corporations encourage this kind of humanitarianism as a means of boosting favorable press and thus corporate profits. I am also certain that many high school students bent on getting into top schools look for spectacular projects that will inspire warm and welcoming thoughts in the readers of their essays.

Traditionally it has been individuals and civic groups, rather than corporations, who have driven efforts for positive change. One such organization is Rotary International. Collectively Rotarians have done some Herculean work, such as their campaign to end polio worldwide. Take at a look and be inspired at the video on this website:  http://www.rotary.org/en/serviceandfellowship/polio/pages/ridefault.aspx

Historically, colleges and universities — JMU among the most enthusiastic — have long encouraged civic service. Madison history is full of civic deeds from rolling bandages and organizing clothing drives during World War II to today’s Community Service Learning Center. Considering the likes of GE and their new penchant for good deeds and a genuine enthusiasm on campus for helping,  I wonder if altruism is becoming cool. It certainly is becoming newsworthy. Clearly, something has changed.

Could it be a surging interest in humanity? We are riveted by the devastation in Haiti and in Japan. We are glued to reality television like Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. We pay attention to stories that tell us about ourselves as members of the human race. Part of this, quite ironically, is media driven. We know more about India or Egypt or Japan because it streams into our homes via televisions and computers and cell phones. It feels closer. It feels more intimate. It feels more like us. News has touched our humanity like no other time in history.

But in our culture of flash-in-the-pan fads that come and go, is this a trend or a change? Is it just a current fad that will soon be replaced with the next big thing? Or is this an indication that a positive and permanent change is taking place?

A JMU student makes a connection during a recent Alternative Spring Break trip.

I would contend (despite my natural cynicism) that it is permanent. And I think a lot of credit goes to teens and twenty-somethings — dubbed by Rory Winston as Generation @ — who perceive the entire world as one big neighborhood. Their neighborhood.

When I run across people like Daniel Morgan (’10) (see last Monday’s blog post) or read in today’s Daily News Record about the past weekend’s “The Big Event,” where more than 1000 JMU students fanned out across Harrisonburg to perform community service projects, I have to believe that something has shifted. What may begin as a way to boost corporate profits or get a coveted spot in the freshman class,  has a secondary, even more important, benefit.

While the lives of many are changed by good works, the lives of the benefactors are changed as well. Over and over and over again, I read accounts by students who have headed to Haiti or the Gulf Coast or Appalachia only to return changed themselves. It is often expressed this way: “I got more than I gave.”

When the propensity to change becomes internalized in a corporation, a school or an individual — whatever the initial motivation — it becomes part of the whole. And when those individuals with intentions of altruism put their hands, minds and hearts together, then big change happens.

It seems, at least for today, being someone who takes steps to improve the world is cool. Let’s hope this kind of coolness lasts. Let’s hope it’s a permanent change in the way we ALL do the business of life.

Read more about the roots of “The Big Event,” here  https://jmubethechange.wordpress.com/?s=eblin

And to read more about JMU’s many outreaches, explore the website of the Community Service Learning Center. http://www.jmu.edu/csl/faculty/may_workshop.html

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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