Studies in South Asia, Habitat for Humanity Shape Richardson’s Public Service Interests

Kirby Richardson graduated from the University of Central Arkansas as a double major in history and religious studies. Richardson has collected a variety of volunteer and public service experience. In addition to his work with Habitat for Humanity, he has volunteered as a history and social studies tutor and writing editor for the University College Program. As an undergraduate at UCA, he spent time studying South Asian history and Buddhist religious traditions in India and Nepal.

Richardson is also a member of the ForwARd Arkansas practicum team, which works with area middle schools and community institutions to build partnerships for the benefit of students. His public service interests include social justice, prison reform, poverty relief, employment and housing non-discrimination, and equal access to quality education.

What are your interests in history and religious studies?

I’ve always been interested in history. History and social studies were my favorite subjects in school growing up, because I come from a family that has a very long history of tracking its genealogy. My mother and my grandmother were very interested in tracking family history. My aunt actually published a book of family history.

From a very young age, the idea that what came before would determine the range of possibilities that were open to you is something that became a fundamental tenant for my life and my family.

I always really loved history and social studies growing up and into high school, so it was just a natural progression to study it further in college. For religious studies, that was something that was a little more personal. I grew up in a predominantly Evangelical household. Religion was something that I always questioned a lot when I was younger, so I felt like it was the perfect opportunity, in college, to put some process to those questions instead of just kind of wondering on my own. I took religious studies more for personal questions than anything else.

How do you feel like these fit into a public service context?

Especially here in the South, we live in The Bible Belt. I think that religion and the church are things that, in a lot of communities, are the center for social life. If you try to separate peoples’ understanding of what public service is and what a good society is from their feelings about religion, you’re not going to be able to get the entire picture and you’re not going to be able to appeal to them on every level. If our goal is to create sustainable social change and to create a better life for all people, or as many people as possible, then we should work inside the spheres that people operate within in their everyday lives.

Religion is one of those for a lot of people. Having an understanding of different religious traditions and having an understanding of peoples’ local cultures as they interact with their religious beliefs is extremely necessary in public service. Now, with history, the idea of what a good society is and what constitutes public service, in service to that idea of good society, is something that has changed drastically over time. If you go back to ancient Greece, they’re going to have a very different idea of what constitutes a good society than what we have today. I think that being able to have the research methodology to be able to track that change over time is something that’s really going to help me in the future.

How did you get involved with Habitat for Humanity?

When I was in the eighth grade, my family and I moved to just outside Rogers, Arkansas. We’d been living in Rogers proper, but we decided that we wanted to move just outside of town. It was a relatively new area; there wasn’t a lot of housing out in this area, but it was under development. One of the biggest developments in this region, in this part of Rogers, was a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood.

Every day on the way to school I would see the Habitat for Humanity crews out there laying foundations and clearing brush and all sorts of stuff. My mother always told me this is where Habitat for Humanity is building houses for people that need help. It was just always an idea, something that was very foreign to me. I’d never had to worry about where we were going to live, whether or not we were going to be able to pay for rent, whether or not we were going to be able to pay for housing, so it caused me a lot of confusion when I was a child, but I really found myself drawn to the idea of building a home for somebody as an act of public service and an act of public good.

A home offers a sense of safety, a sense of security and without that sense of safety and security and belonging that a home provides, it’s so much harder to get through the rest of your life without someplace that you can call your own to go back to. It’s always going to be there waiting for you.

As far as how I got involved with Habitat for Humanity itself, when I graduated from college in 2015, I went back home to northwest Arkansas. I went to college at UCA. I moved back in with my mother and my father, who was very ill at the time, and I started working at the Walmart Home Office, just to make some money and save some money up before coming to grad school. But, I didn’t feel fulfilled sitting in a cubicle all day. So, I started looking for ways to volunteer in my local community.

I volunteered a little bit for the local humane society, but it wasn’t very long. I decided to dedicate my time to Habitat for Humanity. There was a field office right down the road from the Walmart Home Office, so on my way home from work one day I pulled in and volunteered my time. Every Saturday morning, I would go to Habitat for Humanity and do some work in the mornings and just volunteer my time in an effort to give back to the people that didn’t have, because I lived a life where I always did have.

Your public service interests all seem to fall under the umbrella of civil rights. Is that a strong interest of yours? What do they stem from?

That’s an interesting question, I’ve never thought about that before. I think it comes down to: What is a right and what is a privilege? Do people have a right to affordable housing or is it simply a privilege to have affordable housing? Same thing with healthcare, same thing with education. Should we have a fundamental right to basic necessities that improve quality of life or is that something that only people who can pay the price for deserve? I think that it does become an issue of civil rights, it does become an issue of: What does a functioning society owe to its citizens? So yes, I do think it all stems from civil rights.

Which, if any, interests came first?

I can track where my interest in education reform comes from, even though at the time that it was occurring I was only in the second grade. I wasn’t having any radical ideas about education in the second grade, but in looking back on that experience, it is what formed my interest in education reform. I went to a private school for second and third grade, because the local schools in Dallas, where I was living at the time, were not great. They were in severe academic distress. There was a large degree of violence at these institutions. My mother pulled me out of the school after there was a bomb threat at an elementary school.

She pulled me out and sent me to a private school. We had a socioeconomic situation that allowed me to go to private school. Do I think that I got a better education because I went to a private school? I can’t make that determination. I think I got a good education. But, there are plenty of people that don’t have the option not to go to public schools, regardless of how dangerous or ineffective they may be. There are kids who don’t have the option of going to school because their parents aren’t able to get them there. They aren’t able to get them the clothing that they need. They don’t have food. There are a multitude of different factors that go into this.

Why did you choose to recommend A Fine Balance?

In 2014, I participated in a study abroad program in India and Nepal. It was called the Antioch Education Abroad Buddhist Studies in India program. We, 30 American students from various universities, partnered with Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and traveled to South Asia, lived in a Buddhist monastery, and studied South Asian history and Buddhist religious traditions. It was probably the most eye-opening experience of my entire life.

I had never been to that part of the world before and I’d never experienced poverty as intense as the poverty I experienced in India. I lived in the poorest part of the poorest region of India. Per capita, it had the lowest average household income.

I was already in a pretty raw moment in my life and I came across this book in a local library. It was basically a shack. People would leave used books, other people would come and pick them up, read them, then bring them back, and, if they could, contribute a book of their own. I have no idea who set it up. I have no idea where it came from, but I really loved it.

I was going through this little community library and I found this book. It was tattered and torn, a couple pages were missing. I picked it up and I think one of the reasons I chose it was because I read it during one of the most transformational parts of my life. It took on this special meaning, that every time I read it or think about it, it immediately takes me back to that time when I was living in India doing wacky things in Southeast Asia. I also picked it because it’s a story, fundamentally, about how people from different walks of life can meet each other, not trust each other, not particularly like each other, but through consistency and communication form, not just a friendship, but also a family unit – become so close that they consider each other family.

It inspires me to think that we live in an incredibly politically divided time right now, and the idea that people from completely different sides of the equation can sit down and have a conversation and actually leave thinking of each other as gifts rather than as enemies. That’s what the book means to me.

Did the religious or secular aspects of Buddhism have much experience on you or your attitudes toward public service? 

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for 10 years now, which is one of the factors that led me to go on the trip in the first place. My relationship to Buddhist philosophy definitely is a cornerstone to my interest in public service, and it all comes down to one idea. In Buddhism, everyone is innately equal — we are born equal, we die equal. In transgressing against someone else, it’s considered a transgression against yourself. That relationship that you have with another person flows both ways. If they benefit, you benefit, if they don’t benefit, you don’t benefit. If you injure them, you’re also injuring yourself. You’re injuring your future prospects. You’re injuring the relationship that could be. You’re injuring your ability to receive anything that you might have received as a part of that relationship. The idea of innate equality is something I take very seriously.

I’ll mention another one — nonviolence, pacifism is another thing I take very seriously in my promotion of public service. Tempering yourself and your anger, because we live in a time of extreme political and social anger. I think that nonviolence and pacifism do not necessarily translate into some of the social movements that we’re seeing.

Does the Buddhist belief of non-self fit into your public service interests?

When I think of the issue of non-self, I’m more interested in the side of it where everything is considered an aggregate of a set of pre-conditions. When we’re talking about this chair, we’ve got a bunch of wood, metal, and fabric. We call it a chair because we use it as a chair, but it’s really just a bunch of pieces of something that we have stuck together and called a chair. I think that that translates into the idea of public service in that we have to understand that every person we interact with is a culmination of a set of conditions they have experienced in the past. The household they lived in, their socioeconomic status growing up, their access to resources, their access to education, healthcare, and all of these things. They’re created by the situation they came out of. As much as I think it’s therapeutic to look at someone and say, “Oh, you’re just a bad person; I don’t like what you stand for.” It’s harder to take a deep look into what situation, what conditions gave rise to the ideals that they cling to.

Can you describe your experiences with ForwARd Arkansas?

First, I’m extremely excited to potentially have a positive impact on students. I think that for all the pros and cons, or vices, surrounding the Little Rock education system, especially since the state takeover, I think that we have a real opportunity here to make a lasting change that benefits students – I think the Little Rock School District does.

I think that ForwARd Arkansas is trying to nudge them in the right direction with the idea of community partnership. Superintendent Poore is also advocating for these community partnerships. But, I think it has to be done in a specific way. I think students have to be given a voice throughout this process. So, our work is going to be trying to provide a series of best practice recommendations to the Little Rock School District about how to implement an equitable and sustainable school partnership model that benefits students. It’s our hope that the recommendations allow for the universal benefit of all students.

We don’t want to offer recommendations that benefit Forrest Heights or STEM Academy but don’t benefit Mann Magnet or Henderson Middle School. I think that we have an excellent opportunity here to make a lasting change. I’m very thankful that we’ll be given the opportunity to work on this and to provide the much-needed research to the program that’s being implemented by the Little Rock School District. I think it’s going to be a good project. So far, it’s been very a good project. Stressful, but I think it should be, because we need to take everything we possibly can take into account so that we can do what’s best for students.

I think many times programs that are designed specifically for the benefitting of students don’t go far enough in making sure that all students are benefitted. There are people that fall through the cracks, and I really think that our practicum team is up to the task that making sure that net is cast widely enough so that we catch all students.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience at the Clinton School?

I had no idea what I was really getting into coming to the Clinton School. I have a friend, Colby Qualls who is in class 12, and he warned me about how rigorous the classwork would be, and he was right. It is. But it’s extremely rewarding and very valuable, and I’m just very honored and blessed to be here and very thankful to the Clinton School for offering this opportunity.



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