Community service and volunteering are important activities that can be invaluable to a community and the many thousands of people who benefit from the service. Students often get involved by organizing toy or clothing drives, volunteering at soup kitchens and tutoring middle and high school students, among a multitude of other ways. Many universities work community service and service learning into their curriculum through general education requirements or in courses dedicated to this end. Programs that facilitate community service in avenues like those listed above can be referred to as traditional service learning. Though traditional service learning is valuable both to students and the communities they serve, it isn’t perfect and often doesn’t go far enough.
One way traditional service falls short is that it presumes any volunteering is good volunteering. It tends not to recognize whether an organization actually needs the help that the volunteers seek to provide. For example, untrained students who will only be volunteering for a short period of time, like the duration of a semester, aren’t as helpful as they think. An article from the New York Times titled “Does Service Learning Really Help?” points out that, “Volunteers, as any nonprofit leader will tell you … can be as much a curse as a blessing, especially to an organization that lacks the administrative structure and money to train and supervise students.” The training falls upon workers who are already overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities they must juggle. In addition, the cost and effort expended in the training of students must be repeated every semester when a new batch of students lands on the doorstep of the organization.
Another mode of service learning is called critical service learning. In programs that teach this approach, students are more engaged with recognizing the social and economic factors that cause many people to rely upon community service programs in order to survive. Tania D. Mitchell, director of service learning at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, writes, “Critical service-learning programs encourage students to see themselves as agents of social change, and use the experience of service to address and respond to injustice in communities.” Rather than put a Band-Aid on poverty, students of critical service learning seek to identify and dismantle the systems that perpetuate the unequal distributions of wealth brought on by social inequality and lack of effective public assistance programs. This approach can be more beneficial than traditional service because it gets to the root of the problem, while traditional service learning plays into these problems.
For example, in traditional service learning, students aren’t taught to recognize and acknowledge the inherently unequal distribution of power between the servers and the served. Those who are in a position where they are able to help those less fortunate are, by definition, more fortunate. This only serves to further separate the servers from those served, placing them into different and unequal categories, dividing them into an “us” and a “them.” This divide is furthered by volunteers who sometimes brag about or blast their service over social media, further exploiting the people who need these services to make themselves look benevolent. This turns volunteering into “voluntourism.” Mitchell said critical service learning combats this by “nam[ing] the differential access to power experienced by students, faculty and community members, and encourages analysis, dialogue and discussion of those power dynamics.” When students can see past this power hierarchy, they can better relate to and serve their communities.
None of this is to say that traditional modes of volunteering, community service and service learning are not valuable to a community or helpful to millions of people in need; coat drives do keep people warm and soup kitchens do feed people. It is important, however, to recognize the ways in which they fall short. We must cooperate more efficiently with the organizations we serve as well as confront our own privilege as volunteers to serve our communities as best as we can.
Jessica Gutowitz is a junior majoring in English.