Pop Culture

‘If it takes a village, build one’

Giving back. Serving others. These are the things that matter most to Malaak Compton-Rock, a humanitarian and mom who is married to comedian Chris Rock. In her new book “If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways You Can Too,” Compton-Rock spells out how to find just the right volunteer opportunity, how to get kids involved in a life of service, how to research charities and even how to start a nonprofit. In this excerpt, Compton-Rock explains how she got started in a life of service and volunteering.

Each one, teach one

“Service is the rent we pay for living.” Marian Wright Edelman

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been engaged in some kind of service, activism, or volunteer activity, and that without a doubt is thanks to my mother, Gayle Fleming. My mother is an activist from way back — she must have gotten her interest in politics and world events from her mother, who was a voracious reader and writer, and she clearly decided to pass both an interest in politics and a commitment to service down to me.

What I remember most from my childhood is not so much specific issues, concepts, or causes — those came later. Instead, I remember what it felt like to be exposed to service and to be taught about volunteering. There was the thrill of getting to go somewhere with my mother, who would talk to me beforehand about the journey we were going to take for the day, whether it was a rally, a meeting with a nonprofit, or a door-to-door canvass for a candidate she was supporting. Though, like every child, I only really knew what it was like to be in my own family, I did have a sense that I was being exposed to politics and service in a way that was special and slightly different from other kids I knew.

Now that I am an adult, this makes perfect sense to me because I have a mother who will get on a bike and ride from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness and funding, who will plan a yoga-thon to raise money for Darfur, who will enter a book-writing competition and ask her friends to sponsor her for each word written and then give the proceeds to an orphanage in Kenya, and who will plan a fundraiser for a local food bank to help pay off their mortgage so that they can focus on putting more food on the shelves. Now, when I take my own children to a Darfur rally, or to New Orleans to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina either through advocacy events in the lower Ninth Ward or rebuilding houses in St. Bernard Parish, or to visit the friends they’ve made in South Africa’s shantytowns, I think of my own mother doing the same for me in our quiet Oakland neighborhood, and I feel that I, too, am carrying on the traditions of our family.

At any given moment, whether it was at breakfast, in the car, walking down the street, or at dinner, my mother and I could talk about service, volunteering, and the whole wide world. My mother found many ways to make it clear that we were citizens of the world, even if I did not have a chance to personally see the whole world up close. She often reminded me that “everyone does not have the same blessings as we do, and because of this, it’s our absolute duty to give back.” One of her favorite quotes was Marian Wright Edelman’s saying “Service is the rent we pay for living.” It is a motto that I, too, have adopted because it resonates with me so deeply. As everyone who knows me will agree, I repeat these words more than any other quote, and it remains one of my favorite sayings, a touchstone for how I view my life. As a matter of fact, journalist Soledad O’Brien recently joked that Marian Wright Edelman should start collecting royalties from me based on the number of times I repeat these words as she introduced me at an awards dinner.

Our household wasn’t only service-oriented; it was also very political. My mother and her friends could always be found discussing and debating local and national issues. What was the new mayor going to do to make people’s lives better? Was this new policy good or bad for our neighborhood, our people, our city? Where was our country headed, and what should we all be doing about it? Now when my husband, Chris, and I talk politics at the dinner table, I feel that same connection to my past, and I hope my daughters are learning the same lesson: Family is important, yes, but family doesn’t begin and end at the dinner table. We’re all part of a larger family, and if any one of us is hurting, then all of us are. If I get there before you do, I am obligated to bore a hole and pull you through — that’s what my mother lived, that’s what she taught me, and that’s what I try to teach my girls.

Working to help the poorNow, don’t get me wrong. I did not always want to go everyplace my mother wanted to take me. I did not really want to join her at her meditation center no matter how much she tried to convince me that it would help to make me a better person. I can remember my mom had a friend she meditated with and did a lot of service work with who also had a teenage daughter, one of my classmates. Mai and I were very similar. When our mothers went overboard (as we saw it), we were able to hang together and commiserate.

As of this writing, my older daughter Lola is only 7 and my little Zahra is only 5, and I do pull them from pillar to post, as my mother did with me, in order to show them the many ways people live in this world and to instill a sense of service in them from a very early age. Though I fully expect them to do their own share of teenage complaining eventually, I hope that they ultimately feel the way I do now: eternally grateful that my mother made me take part in both politics and service, because those were the experiences that helped to shape me into the woman I am today.

Certainly the issues that were closest to my mother’s heart are close to mine as well. My mother attended Mills College in Oakland, a very feminist place, so she was always concerned with the rights of women, as well as with every woman’s responsibility to make the world a better place. Mom was also deeply committed to civil rights and equality for African- Americans. Living in Oakland, she had the chance to become good friends with Black Panther leaders Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, so I remember us hanging out with them and their children while I was growing up.

Mainly, though, my mother was concerned with poverty, both here in the United States and around the world. She was and continues to be a big supporter of RESULTS, an extraordinary non-governmental organization that lobbies the U.S. government to allocate more resources for poor countries and supports other groups that work directly for the poor. As a teenager, I remember going with her to lots of RESULTS fundraisers and advocacy events, where I learned more about how to effect change for the world’s poor, lessons that I use today in my work with orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.

These days, my mother lives in Washington, D.C., where she continues to come up with innovative ways to raise money and awareness for the causes most important to her. She’s still working on behalf of hunger issues both in the United States and abroad, showing special concern for food pantries, which have become a mainstay not only for the poor but also for many middle-class people who’ve fallen on hard times and don’t have any kind of safety net to rely on due to our tough economic climate.

As when I was growing up, my mother is still part of a vital network of friends who share her interests, and she hangs out at D.C. spots like the bookstore café Busboys and Poets, where she can talk to her heart’s content about issues affecting our world, like the war in the Middle East, the genocide in Darfur, the economy, and how to help those who are hurting because of the mortgage crisis. Times and topics have changed since I was a child growing up in the liberal and very active cultures of Oakland and Berkeley, but one important constant has remained: If you have an opportunity to help, then you must help.

A sense of pride — and responsibilityOn my father’s side, I come from a long line of educators with a close connection to Howard University, the historically black institution of higher learning in Washington, D.C., established in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. My father’s uncle was for many years the head of Howard’s political science department. When it came time for me to go to college, Howard University was my first choice. Not only did I want to attend a school with a rich and illustrious legacy in terms of educating freed slaves, I was also aware of Howard’s prominent alumni, including such politicians and activists as David Dinkins, Vernon Jordan, and Andrew Young; author Toni Morrison; Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall; physician and medical pioneer Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr.; and entertainers (and sisters) Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. In fact, Howard University graduates more African-American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals than any other HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) institution in the United States.

I believe that by attending Howard, I was truly blessed in terms of my education. I had the great good luck to be taught by some of the most brilliant professors in the nation and to share my time with bright and ambitious classmates. To walk across such a historic campus every day filled me not only with pride but also with a sense of responsibility. Like a lot of graduates of HBCUs, I felt my ancestors’ legacy, and I wanted to make them and the people who graduated before me proud — especially those first graduates, who walked to college, literally walked to Howard University, because they did not have the money for transportation, from cities all over the Deep South, seizing against incredible odds their first opportunity at higher education.

Another plus: Howard University offered me the chance to live in the nation’s capital. I remember during my first semester going down to the National Mall to visit the Capitol and sitting in on congressional hearings, listening to the people who make our laws arguing and debating. I’ll be honest: I usually got lost in all of the back-and-forth and the long speeches made by some lawmakers. But as the child of an activist, I understood that the laws they were talking about would have a huge impact on people’s lives and even on my own life. I was thrilled to see that such life-changing debates were held in public and to be able to witness political debates by leaders who had been elected by ordinary people like my family and myself. Something about living in D.C. made politics more urgent — and somehow more real.

So although my major was in arts production management, I minored in political science. I even thought about going into politics for a time, though I eventually decided not to, and it’s a good thing, too; I don’t have the temperament for it. What I love about service is the hands-on aspect, working with people, especially children, who need my help; that excites me far more than sitting in some conference room hammering out policy. Plus I think I would be far too impatient — as in bite my arm off! — with the slow pace of creating policy when I can serve in a hands-on way on behalf of critical issues that need immediate attention. I understand, though, that politicians, administrators, and especially advocates are a crucial part of service. Howard was where I first began to understand that each of us has to find our own path, our own particular way to serve.

Creating a village around one childI was also conscious of the fact that Howard, like so many well known institutions of higher learning — such as the University of Southern California, Yale, and Columbia, to name a few — was located smack-dab in the middle of a low-income, primarily African-American neighborhood struggling with crime and drug abuse. I felt a sense of responsibility to serve where I lived and attended school. Since I was close to the Washington, D.C., headquarters for RESULTS, the organization my mom had long supported, I ended up working on its special events, volunteering to help set up rallies, street fairs, and even a huge gathering on the Mall. I also have fond memories of mentoring a little girl who lived in my neighborhood, a child who was being raised by her grandmother. To protect her privacy, I’ll call her Jasmine M. Over the three years that I mentored her, Jasmine M. and I became very close, and I got a huge lesson in how far a little bit of time can go in someone else’s life.

I also saw that “it takes a village to raise a child,” since I soon had pretty much everyone I knew involved in mentoring Jasmine M. as well, including all my girlfriends and my then boyfriend. Whichever one of us was available would spend time with Jasmine M., sometimes just hanging out with her or maybe taking her to museums and exhibits. I had a weekend job as a concierge at the Embassy Suites Hotel, and soon Jasmine M. was sitting behind my desk for my entire shift, coloring or reading. After a while, she became everybody’s child. And isn’t that how it should be?

After graduation, I tried to stay in touch with her, and on my trips back to D.C., I often took Jasmine M. out to lunch. Though I do not know where she is or what she is doing all these years later, I can only hope that I had a positive influence on her life. I know that she had an amazing influence on my life and I still think of her to this day.

Excerpted from “If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways You Can Too” by Malaak Compton-Rock. Copyright 2010 by Broadway Books. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.