Community Outside Your Comfort Zone: My Engagement in Foreign Community Service 

By Shana Beth Mason.

I have no substantive background in community organization, public engagement policy, nor activism. My background is centered in creative and critical writing, with a focus on Modern and Contemporary art. Despite this, I have found myself engaged in a rather extraordinary kind of commitment that requires time, energy, passion, financial resources, and above all, a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone to satisfy the needs of the whole.

A scene from the Palio di Siena, as the jockeys and their horses circle the famous Piazza del Campo.

In August of last year, I was among 80,000 visitors headed to the center of the city of Siena: capital of the Siena region of Tuscany in northwestern Italy. Every year twice a year, a celebration is held that culminates in a dramatic horse race which rings around the Piazza del Campo. The celebration, the prize (a painted silk banner), and the game of strategy by which races are won are all collectively known as the Palio. Each city district (there are a total of seventeen), known as a contrada, participates in the festivities of both the July and August Catholic feast days. 365 days a year, every member of this community rallies to present this electric spectacle to those from within and beyond its city walls. But beyond the Palio, Siena is a city with roots predating the Bronze Age, and has endured as a cultural gem in both the Italian and global consciousness. The entire city center, itself, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The studio apartment I had booked for the week of the Palio put me in the heart of one of those contrade. For one week, 24 hours a day, I witnessed the deep intrigue and gamesmanship of men and women, young and old, yearning for a victory on that earthen track. I was swept up in the rituals of a nearly 800 year-old tradition that has gone unbroken even in times of war, plague and neglect. I came to understand that this was not just an event, it was the lifeblood and pride of the city; its very heart and soul. I was so moved, that I summoned my courage to approach one of the commissioners of the Contrada dell’Aquila (the District of the Eagle – remarkable coincidence of the symbol to an American citizen), stating my intention to support and sustain their community in perpetuity. “This felt like home”, I told him; “Even though”, I said, “that I am not Senese, not even Italian, I felt I could lend my own enthusiasm to belong to such a beautiful community in whatever way I could”. To my astonishment, they accepted my donation and designated me as a protettrice (“Protector”) of their district. My “baptism” is forthcoming this September, whereupon I will be granted rights – to the best of my knowledge – alongside any born citizen of the contrada.


Enter aBoys as young as five or six begin serving their contrada as drummers or future flag-bearers. Every member of every contrada participates in some form during the days of the Palio. These drummers represent the Contrada dell’Aquila (District of the Eagle). Photo credit: Snappystreet Photography, Sydney.

The big takeaway here was not my bold approach (in a language that is not my mother tongue, but passable nonetheless), nor was it the size of my contribution, nor even was it a wave of passion inspired by the Palio. What I gained most from this was the feeling of serving a greater common goal, the sensation of belonging to something so singularly special in the wide world. I learned that this was the essence of community service: to put aside your trepidations or your assumptions on how you gel with those around you. If you gravitate to a community, bolster it. If the community embraces you, embrace them ten times over. If you find yourself overwhelmed with how little you may know compared to others around you, ask questions and stand firmly in your desire to learn and be taught. If some people give you strange looks as an outsider, smile and soldier forth.


The passion and loyalty for each contrada is passed down from generation to generation in Siena. Children from the Contrada dell’Pantera (District of the Panther) wave their banners high. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Community is a living, breathing organ that can’t be fully understood or operated by one thing, alone. It takes many living, breathing things to help it function and thrive. Every community needs support in some way, and even the biggest, most prosperous places on Earth need nourishment in the form of passionate, dedicated individuals – like those in Democrats Abroad. If ever there was a time to step outside the comfort zone and take your place on the start line, it is now.


Shana Beth Mason received her BA in Literature from Florida State University and her MA in the History of Art & Connoisseurship from Christie’s Education London (University of Glasgow). Apart from her full-time job at the Imperial War Museum in London, she is working on her first book, focused on the histories of the women in the James Bond films and novels.


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