The year after I finished college, I worked part time at a community-based literacy program in southeast Washington DC.  As part of my internship, I  coordinated a book donation project and distributed children’s books to kids at the nearby housing project.  I worked hard to collect high quality kids’ books–though at the time there were even fewer books written by or about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), and I was a bit clueless about how crucial they were.  Still, I had some fruitful connections with kids and families who lived there, and had several special events to distribute books in the community room in the housing project.

At one of these events, I gave a preschooler a board book and he promptly threw it on the ground repeatedly.  I was horrified.  Granted, I was only 22 years old, and pretty inexperienced.   To this day, I think about how my boss responded when I told her about this sad situation.  She looked at me calmly and said, “Maybe what he needs is a ball.”

It was mind-shifting.  I still fall into the trap of putting together well-intentioned projects and proposals and and then being disappointed when they are not received quite like I expected.  Sometimes what people need and want is different than what I think they need and want, and that can be tricky to keep track of.  I think back to my humbling experience at that housing project as one of the first times I truly understood (at least for a minute) the importance of reaching out to the community I’m trying to serve to get a better understanding of what that service could and should look like.

What helps you remember to get ideas and information from the folks you want to serve and base your work on that?