Daniel Becton, an LSE alumnus, decided to take an unusual type of gap year and set out to volunteer with a charity in every US state for a week. He set off in August 2012 on his 42,000 mile adventure and finished last autumn. We spoke to Daniel about why he chose such an ambitious project and how he feels now he’s completed it.
‘Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.’
-Martin Luther King Jr. (16-Aug-1967)
Like most who turn up to Houghton Street, I started life at the LSE wide-eyed, ambitious and idealistic. Fascinated and outraged by global and local injustices, I wanted to enhance my worldview and develop tools for changing society.
I’ll never forget the moment my dissertation supervisor pointed out that after 11 months I now had analytical tools available, but my task was to mobilise them. This was a lightbulb moment for me because I realised the question behind knowledge production is never about what is, but about what information is made accessible to tell the stories that (re-)create our social reality.
Studying in the Gender Institute equipped me with a critical lens for viewing power in society, but it didn’t just leave me angry about injustice. It left me wondering, ‘What can I do?’
This is a decidedly different position than the basic feeling that dominates the cynical, reductionist, polarising politics of my native USA, in which we are taught to ask, ‘What should they be doing and how is this all their fault?’ As a self-identified Feminist, I was frustrated by our own unproductive, counterintuitive ‘us vs. them’ politics, with that ugly, poisonous wedge of ‘liberal elitism’ doing as much to dehumanise the other and distort its own benevolent mission as the ostensibly oppositional ‘Christianity’.
While volunteering in schools in San Jose, California, I found I was better and happier in an environment built around community, not resource competition, and my eight-year path to law school was tossed out the window. That same year, I dreamt up the idea of traveling throughout the country in celebration of people who embodied the spirit of the South African concept of ubuntu – ‘I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours’. I wanted to celebrate, support and learn from people who saw others as fully human, not as numbers or as limited to identity groups they belonged to.
Over the next two years I returned to London and helped start the youth and education charity City Year UK, all the while planning an independent project to visit a charity in every US state. In August 2013 I set out on my 42,000-mile, 51-week adventure and fulfilled my plan of spending one week with a different organisation in every state and Washington, D.C.
My central questions were around the ideas of community (how do we transcend ‘us and them’?), accessibility (of physical space, information and opportunities) and that exciting concept of mobilisation – how might we harness goodwill itself as a resource, and what would that make possible?
The adventure forced upon me a belief in the incredible return on investment that comes through love: Every meal I needed was provided by others, and 71 homes opened their doors to ensure shelter for all 363 days. Along the way I experienced a powerful personal transformation through the openness, humility, gratitude, generosity and humanity of people in communities that were formed through solidarity and transcendence of concepts like poverty, addiction, violence, disability, education, agriculture, faith, race, sexuality, age and gender.
Mirroring a journey reflected throughout human history, I discovered a new story about happiness and about my own ability to influence the world: The people who serve love, not power, seem to be getting it right. Channeling our ambition through service to others is the secret to success, which is why the very next thing Dr. King states after the above epigraph is, ‘Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice’.
Daniel finished his trip last Autumn and returned to City Year UK to support the development of young civic leaders and the growing volunteering movement in Britain. He has also been given the chance to share his learnings from Project Ubuntu to groups in Birmingham, London, Oxford and Liverpool. Please watch the following video to see more about the trip and his message.