Do you have a pencil nearby? Take a look at it.
It’s probably orange or yellow, with a friendly pink eraser and a sharp black tip. It’s one of the most ordinary objects imaginable. And yet, it’s also a bit of a miracle. Assuming the rubber in that eraser is not synthetic, it contains material from rubber trees, which are grown in tropical regions with heavy rainfall and high temperatures. Much like maple trees, rubber trees are “tapped” for their sap, which in this case is latex. The wood in the pencil usually comes from softwoods (like cedars) that grow thousands of miles away from the rubber trees. Pencil lead is made by pulverizing chunks of graphite and clay, then mixing the resulting powder with water in a big rotating drum for up to three days. That’s not even getting into the complexities of the metal band connecting the pencil with the eraser, or the manufacturing of the bright paint coating the wood.
All of this is to say, the modern world is almost unimaginably complex, and even something as basic and a pencil relies upon the specialized knowledge of countless people around the world. As a history major, I would say I’ve spent less time than most people would assume studying names and dates (although those are also important) and more time studying the growth of all these systems we take for granted. Not so much the pencil system, admittedly, but the development of methods of governing, taxation, child-rearing, religion, science and many other aspects of our world. I find studying history to be an incredibly humbling experience, a little like the off-kilter feeling you get when you look at a night sky full of stars. It’s the realization that you are a very small part of something very big, something you will never be able to understand all of but might, with any luck, someday understand a little piece of.
For seven weeks, I’ve been lucky to be a Development Intern at Avodah; I’ve met so many wonderful people, and learned a huge amount about the nonprofit world. One especially interesting part of the job is being able to sit in on all-staff meetings and see the nitty gritty of how a nonprofit functions. Development, communications, recruitment, operations, technology – seeing all these different departments work together to form a greater whole really does remind me of the kind of systems I studied in class. My tasks as an intern include researching prospective major donors, updating the Salesforce database, and writing newsletters, among other things. So much of the satisfaction I’ve derived from all of this has come from seeing how the small contributions I make can be used by others in the organization to work towards Avodah’s goals. No matter what I go on to do, I think this realization of the importance of a sense of shared workplace community and purpose will be relevant.
Since I started my internship, I’ve noticed myself perceiving the world differently. When I walk down the street and see a billboard, a car, a volunteer group picking up litter, I find myself thinking about all the teams of people behind what’s visible on the surface, and all the planning and coordination that had to happen for what I see to become a reality. When I’m looking at the world through this lens, even a humble pencil is a remarkable testament to the power of human collaboration.