“I don’t want to just help them, I want to empower them and painting a wall isn’t empowering.”
“Exactly, I want to do more than paint a wall or hand out soup.”
This was a conversation I overheard between two student leaders who were planning a service-learning program. They were having a moral dilemma as they designed their program. The dilemma was between wanting to empower their participants to tackle the systemic vehicles of oppression in society or conducting a short-term service project. The conclusion they reached was to simply forgo the service element and treat their program as purely educational.
It wasn’t a new conversation to overhear, rather a predictable one.
Each year, thousands of high school and college students take part in short-term service trips. Each spring and summer break, students focus on social justice issues such as homelessness, equity in education and criminal justice reform in communities ranging from Portland, Oregon to Cape Town, South Africa. They are usually service-learning programs where students learn about an issue facing a community from the community members themselves and in return take part in service.
I’ve been involved in service-learning for about six years now, and I’ve noticed a trend as of late. In order to avoid the “voluntourism” trap and the “white man’s burden” complex, students want to stop doing service altogether and instead, just learn and focus on the systemic root causes that enable for social injustices to happen. They want to tackle the big stuff instead of the day-to-day stuff.
I see three problems with this. First, going into a community to simply learn doesn’t benefit the community. Second, service is still needed, on a local, national and international level and many organizations rely on service to make ends meet. Lastly, service is part of reaching the big picture too, it’s crucial in reaching collective liberation (more on that later).
Going into a community on a service-learning program is like going to dinner at someone’s home. When someone invites you over, the polite thing to do is to ask if they need help preparing the meal or setting the table. If they ask you to set the table, you do it. Not because you’re superior or because you have more privilege than them. You simply do it because you’re helping them relieve part of the burden of hosting you for dinner.
Conducting service is similar. You are not telling a community what they should be doing but instead, you are relieving part of the burden from that community by fulfilling the answer to, “What can we do to help?”
Let’s be clear, helping is not fixing. I am not encouraging students to go into underserved communities with the idea that they can fix any problem (they can’t) rather they should use their skills and resources to respond to the asks of the community.
Simply lend a hand if a hand is needed, if it’s not that is okay too.
Organizations, especially nonprofits, rely on volunteers to fill the holes that they can’t afford to staff. For example, a school might desperately need new school supplies so they ask for volunteers to donate and organize the supplies.
For many students on service-learning programs, the end goal is collective liberation. Collective liberation is the idea that everyone is liberated when systemic barriers in society are dismantled. That once everyone is liberated, we will all benefit both economically and socially.
However, many students fail to recognize that in order to achieve collective liberation we need to simultaneously tackle systems of oppression while addressing the everyday needs of those who are marginalized. We can’t forget about the people who live amidst the ramifications of social injustices every day.
For example, if students want to tackle the issue of homelessness, they need to both support more affordable housing, rent control, job training and accessible mental health services while at the same time provide immediate relief to those who are currently living on the streets. Volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens are still needed to provide immediate relief for people sleeping outside.
People will still be homeless tonight and they’ll be homeless tomorrow night too. It’s important to remember that the systems that perpetuate poverty will not be dismantled overnight.
It’s not an ultimatum of choosing the “right” way or the “incorrect” way of providing service, it’s acknowledging that in order to break down systems of oppression, we need a holistic approach.
Service-learning programs provide an opportunity for students to engage with communities and the greater world of social justice while contributing to the immediate needs of communities. The communities themselves are working to fix the systems that oppress them. That’s their work and that’s their life. The work of service-learning programs is to assist them in any way possible.