Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What is the value of your service?

My time as a resource scientist in a local urban high school opened my eyes to the amazing amount of inequalities among urban African-American youth. Far too many are ‘racing for last place’ and haven’t thought twice about the future. I found it overwhelmingly depressing to witness these children of promise and possibility completely blind to real opportunities available to them. They behaved as if being professionally and personally successful (in a middle-class sense) was only a fantasy. It was also at this time that I began to critique the actions of the teachers and administrators of the school. They spent a lot of time, energy, effort and money to do things that I judged were of little to no educational value or relevance to the students.

At the same time I was a member of a national civic organization whose purpose was to empower people to become apart of the economic and political mainstream. So, I found myself critiquing the operations of my civic organization. We were doing good deeds (lots of good deeds) as a part of our effort to ‘help the needy’ but I began to feel as if we were not truly empowering them to pull themselves out of poverty.

As a resource scientist I was responsible for making recommendations to enrich the science curriculum. I worked with a teacher to bring the lessons up-to-date, offer suggestions to make the activities more hands-on, authentic. As one of the few scientists in my civic organization, I wanted to help diversify the organization. The organization primarily attracted entrepreneurs and corporate-types. So, I thought my objectivity and ability to attend to comprehensive details would be a great match to the organization.

Interestingly, I found myself disillusioned and soured with both the public school institution and that civic organization. I became disenchanted because their purposes are so pure and I poured lot of my self and energy into those institutions. The goals were simple: To educate and to empower the disenfranchised. However, in both situations I felt horribly under-utilized as a professional person.

Here I was, a soon-to-be Ph.D. in science, interacting with these urban youth, primarily African-American and poor. I had had high hopes of inspiring these young people to pursue careers in science or at least see how having adequate understanding of science as a process could open new doors to them. But alas, I was only a set of hands. At the high school, I felt like a mindless drone that was never asked or called upon to do anything more than make photocopies of worksheets or supervise students completing seat work. At the civic organization, our monthly community service projects involved painting day care nurseries walls, collecting food items, and picking up trash. I began asking myself “How was ‘my’ presence necessary? I mean, how doe one with my experiences, educational background, and passion to serve the disenfranchised use my skills and talents to help these families gain more in life? Anyone could paint a wall or make photocopies. You didn’t need an advanced degree to do that. What benefit was I actually extending to these children or families? Was I really making a difference or was I enabling dependency?”

I challenge service-learning programs, volunteer organizations, educational and social service agencies to really think about this. Are we really ‘making a difference in the community’ when we participate in such activities? To me, some are doing things just for the sake of doing a good thing. the deed has no greater purpose or value beyond the time it is being done. Yes, they are doing something. Yes, people – volunteers, teachers, members – are ‘giving back’ and ‘giving their all’, but are they helping people become better able to take care of themselves? Are the services they provide effective? Is it right for civic organizations or educational systems to claim that there are making a difference when nothing has changed?

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