The Persistent Path of Public Benefit Workers

Drawing on his own experience, Chang Zhuqing discusses the difficulties and challenges that confront people who work in the Public Benefit arena. (Chang Zhuqing)

By Chang Zhuqing (Executive Director of Shaanxi Yiluren Public Benefit Service Centre, formerly Cultural Reflection Programme Officer for PCD, Guizhou)

Editor’s note:

Chang worked for PCD between 2012 and 2014 and was responsible for the cultural programmes among Miao and Dong communities in southeast Shaanxi. He now works for Shaanxi Yiluren Service Centre for Public Benefit, an organisation he co-established, and is mainly responsible for planning and management. The centre has a wide range of services, including volunteer training, rural reconstruction, consciousness raising, migrant children, children left behind in the rural area, ecological agriculture, environmental protection, legal aid, setting up new ventures for public benefit, community building, etc. There is a department of capacity building, which is engaged in nurturing leaders among young people working for public benefit. There is also a social work department which aims to develop participatory community governance by advocating taking roots in local communities, exploring community culture, and fostering community self-organisation.

Drawing on his own experience, Chang discusses the difficulties and challenges that confront people who work in the public benefit arena, and the feeling of exhaustion, helplessness and restlessness that are an inevitable part of the experience. Where does one find the source of strength when in predicament? How can the work for public benefit become a sustainable career, allowing one to practice what one believes in while earning a living? In this article, Chang reflects on his experience and discusses the factors that enable one to persevere on the path of public benefit.

+ Click thumbnail to enlarge photo
Drawing on his own experience, Chang Zhuqing discusses the difficulties and challenges that confront people who work in the Public Benefit arena. (Chang Zhuqing)
Chang (standing at right) conducting trainings on ideas and principles of work for public benefit. (Chang Zhuqing)
A training activity organised by Shaanxi Yiluren Public Benefit Service Centre for novice public benefit workers. (Shaanxi Yiluren Public Benefit Service Centre )
An activity on love of one’s home village was organised by the centre for university students who had gone back to their home villages. (Shaanxi Yiluren
Public Benefit Service Centre )

Presently, China’s public benefit workers face major challenges regarding sustainability and long-term survival. It is not easy to strike a balance between self-recognition, family support, social recognition, and earning a living. The reality is not optimistic at all. Even if one is very cautious in finding the balance, things can still go wrong anytime. Over the last few years, many young people around me joined the ranks of public benefit workers in the hope of practicing their belief in public benefit, but cruel blows of reality soon forced them to return to a mainstream lifestyle. One year, three years, five years, ten years……As one travels longer on the public benefit path, the threshold becomes higher and the challenge bigger. In spite of this, some people have persevered. For them, perseverance means sacrifice and giving, but it also means hope. However, the form of perseverance assumed by different people may differ, and each person has his/her own way of persevering.

The livelihood of Public Benefit Workers

The issue of livelihood is one of the biggest challenges that confronts young people joining the ranks of public benefit workers. In mainstream society, livelihood means income, but public benefit workers have a more diverse understanding of livelihood. As public benefit workers, what one earns is not simply an income, but also knowledge, ideas, principles and even social relations. Mainstream society finds it hard to understand how others can achieve fulfillment through a simpler, calmer way of life. Even though public benefit workers may not earn as much as people in other professions, the knowledge and ideas that we use to help others can also be employed to help ourselves in life.

For example, I have employed the ecological agricultural skills I learnt to generate income for my own family and my own home village. When I studied in the university, I promoted water melon seed production in my home village, and gave guidance to villagers on using less chemical fertiliser and pesticides. I earned enough to pay for my university education from this alone, and benefited my home village by introducing them to ecological agriculture. Upholding public benefit workers’ belief in health and mutual help can also have a major positive impact on one’s daily life. In the last few years, I have been practicing sustainable living in my daily life and at home, for example, using enzymes which are environmentally friendly, using Chinese medicine, etc. It has had an obvious impact—my family now spends much less on cleaning agents because we use enzymes. Since I have been using Chinese medicine, I have not needed to go to the hospital or use my medical insurance. Since I have knowledge about ecological agriculture, I have been paying attention to food safety in my daily life as well as the health and harmony of my family. Since I have changed my view on consumption, I no longer mind wearing old clothes. This helps to reduce my family expenses as well. Apart from all this, we have a group of friends in Xi’an who are concerned about food safety and health. We often share healthy food produced and made with care and concern. In this way we have reduced our food expenses and have improved our health.

The biggest gain over the last few years of treading this path is to have met many true friends. We have come together because we share common ideas and beliefs and not because of material interest. Ours is a friendship based on justice. Whenever one of us is in trouble, others would help. Friends are public benefit workers’ most important social capital.

Capacity enhancement of public benefit workers

The issue of capacity building of public benefit workers is a very popular subject right now. Many professional trainings and workshops are organised for this purpose every year. However, it is not easy to transform in the learning into practice. In martial arts stories there is a saying that the master might have introduced the hero to martial arts, but to improve and to attain perfection, heroes must rely on themselves. Public benefit workers usually learn ideas, knowledge and methods of work in training activities and workshops, but must transform what they have learnt into practice. In my experience of organising training activities for young people, I have found that the practice of the same ideas and principles, when applied among different people and in different places, can be very different. In fact, the training that we take part in is only the first step for the enhancement of our capacity. What is more important is to keep reflecting on one’s actions in one’s practice and work. Only in this way can we transform what we have learnt into an inner capacity, which then become our “expertise and strength”. In addition, the communities and people that public benefit workers serve are very diverse, and the problems they face are very different. We must always be open-minded and not become attached to our own ideas, experience and methods. We should always be ready to learn something new under new circumstances. Through new learning, practice and reflection, we can have dialogue and feedback, and continue to challenge ourselves.

Source of energy for public benefit workers

To persevere on the path of public benefit, public benefit workers need a sustainable source of energy. I think there are three sources. First, there is an external energy source. My family, team workers, the community, partner organisations, and other elements of society are all a major source of energy for me. Whenever I go home for a holiday, I would share with my family and friends about my work and my joy and emotion in witnessing community change. My family and friends always express their understanding and support for me. This has provided me with the motivation to continue. Second, it is very important to create positive energy in one’s work team and in the community that encourages free and honest expression and respect for each other. Sometimes when there are challenges, we must be able to acknowledge and share our vulnerability honestly with each other. Words of comfort can bring us closer.

The other source of energy is inside us. Over the last two years, we and a group of young people in Xi’an have been reflecting on our paths as public benefit workers. In this process, we have been learning more about ourselves, our original motivation and choice as well as the shaping of our personality and values, which have become clearer for us. Every time I reflect on my path, I can see my choice more clearly and am more certain about my choice. In fact, our own life is the most important book. It is an inexhaustible source of energy. The third source of energy is physical exercise. I used to jog or do other similar exercise to keep up my stamina. In the last few years, I have been organising participatory workshops and doing programme evaluations, all of which involve a lot of energy and physical activities. Sometimes when I have finished a programme, I have to rest for a few days. Because of this, I have been learning ways, such as walking meditation and relaxation, to train my concentration and to restore my energy rapidly. I have also tried to integrate traditional exercise, such as baduanjin, a traditional qigong practice for health purposes, in workshops so that I can restore my energy rapidly through relaxation or guide myself to connect with the surrounding environment.

How do public benefit workers sustain their passion?

After treading this path for a long time, one would often feel exhausted or helpless when faced with adversities and challenges. Public benefit workers often panic when they feel their passion gradually fading, especially when compared with when they first started their work. It is indeed a major challenge not to become stale and cynical. I think new challenges can help to maintain motivation. These challenges include new problems, new ways of thinking and new learning, all of which can invigorate us. In addition, it is also important for us to keep encouraging each other and sharing experiences with our team members, family and community. By building a culture of positive energy we can help each other to face challenges together.