Thursday October 01, 2015
As I climbed the front steps of Francine Serwili’s South Burlington home on a recent late summer afternoon, she swung the door open wide, welcoming me into her living room. Her three children, Marlene and Marlynn, both seventeen, and Junior, age fifteen, each greeted me with blooming smiles and warm handshakes. For the next hour, I eagerly listened to them speak about how the Peace and Justice Center (PJC) has made it possible for Francine and her husband, both from Rwanda, to raise their children in South Burlington, a place the Serwili family has called home for the past six years.
A non-profit organization and leader in social activism in Vermont since 1979, the mission of PJC is to create a just and peaceful world. They work toward that end through education, advocacy, training, community organizing, and non-violent activism. According to Executive Director Rachel Siegel, PJC “relies heavily on volunteers.” In 2014, more than 110 volunteers served more than 7,000 hours. “We really wouldn’t exist without the volunteers,” she emphasized.
Francine said she learned about PJC through word of mouth, adding that being an “active anti-oppression advocate” helped too. As Siegel noted, Francine began volunteering for the center more than a year ago. She has worked as an organizational ambassador, has served on the Racial Justice Program Development Committee, has co-facilitated workshops, and has worked as a store clerk at the PJC store, an economic empowerment project of PJC. The store, located on Burlington’s waterfront, is a socially responsible non-profit that sells locally and globally crafted items.
Francine speaks five languages, holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, with a major in French and a minor in psychology, and a master’s degree in education. Such expertise and experience is “invaluable to the Racial Justice Program,” Ms. Siegel commented in follow-up to the interview. She also added that Francine’s “passion and magnetic personality make her invaluable to our store.”
That passion is what drives Francine to educate customers about fair trade. A movement, as opposed to a material item, fair trade is not easy to define in a single word or sentence. Marlynn described it well when she said, “It takes into account how hard people work. The money goes back to them so they can earn fair wages.”
The PJC store is a quintessential example of fair trade. The funds from all sales go to the communities that craft the products, allowing them to invest in areas such as education, medical care, vocational training, and violence prevention. At one point during our interview, Francine pointed to her earrings, just one of the myriad items the store sells. “Look,” she beamed, “they’re the shape of Africa.” But she admitted that she particularly enjoys the chocolate products, adding, “I’m saving the world one chocolate at a time.”
“I needed to get involved [in the center] to learn why racism is happening,” Francine explained. She pointed out that when she and her husband came to Vermont fifteen years ago, she did not know about racism. “I don’t have a choice,” she said. When I asked her to clarify that statement, she explained, “Race is the thing people see. We’re black every day.” Francine glanced at each of her children and asked them to add any thoughts. Marlynn leaned forward on the couch, and answered with an unexpected, yet telling question, “Where are you from?” Junior, who sat by his mother’s side, and Marlene, who shifted closer to her twin sister, both nodded in agreement. “When people ask me that, I feel like an outsider,” Marlynn continued. Francine called this unintended discrimination “micro-aggression” - a term coined in 1970 to describe insults, dismissals, and even unintentional everyday verbal and nonverbal slights that communicate negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Marlynn explained that, because she is black, sometimes people believe she must be from somewhere else, even though she and her siblings are from Vermont. Francine acknowledged that people don’t mean to cause harm, and that “we all do it,” make unintended discriminatory remarks. But she asked that we evaluate what we are really saying when we ask, “Where are you from?”
Francine spoke proudly of how PJC has made the community more aware of our powers, and of our responsibilities to one another as human beings. The center has also impacted Francine’s children. They have performed African dances to share a little bit about their culture with the community, and they too have volunteered at the PJC Store. Francine gleamed when she affirmed that the center and store are “sanctuaries that need to stay open so voices can be heard. It’s a place of comfort, and safety.” She went on to say that she feels a sense of fulfillment volunteering for PJC. “I’m recruiting for peace. It’s worth my time.”
Francine’s determination to make a difference reaches beyond PJC. She and her husband interpret for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, and she volunteers for We All Belong AmeriCorps, a collaborative program of Vermont non-profits that work to create inclusive and equitable services. But, as she made clear during our meeting, “being a mom is number one.” For Francine, being a mother also means it is her role “to speak out for all children who are not heard.”
Are you looking for a place where your full voice is welcome? Don’t we all want to feel a sense of fulfillment knowing that we are helping other voices to be heard? And studies have shown that volunteering creates what is called the “happiness effect.” It’s reasonable to say that Francine is the embodiment of just that, and much more.
If you are in search of an enduring boost of happiness and fulfillment, why not volunteer for PJC? As Siegel expressed, “Together we can do what we cannot do alone.”
PJC volunteer orientations are held every second Thursday at 11:00 a.m. and every fourth Saturday at 3:00 p.m. The next orientation will be held Thursday, Oct. 8 at 11 a.m. For more information about PJC, visit www.pjcvt.org. For the PJC biweekly newsletter, go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor