Makes Susan Serve?
a first-semester junior, has never done a stitch of community service.
So I'm puzzled when she chooses the most physically and emotionally challenging
community placement in a course on religion, ethics, and social practice.
To fulfill the course's six-hour-per-week service requirement, Susan goes
to work at Our House, an urban homeless shelter for families and single
women in Pomona. She is a huge success as an intake counselor and substitute
teacher in the various classes required of shelter clients. On one occasion,
Susan is asked to take over a class on household budgeting minutes before
the session begins. Acknowledging to her "students" that she has never
in her life kept a budget, she says: "Let's just figure out how to do
it together," and they do. After completing the semester course, Susan
continues to volunteer at Our House and revamps her curriculum in order
to take psychology courses in preparation for a career in social work.
What initially motivates Susan, or any of the rest of
us, to engage in community service is hard to pin down. Students cite
a broad range of factors running from "It will look good on my resume"
to "my parents were always volunteering, and it never occurred to me not
to." The more interesting question is what sustains people in community
service. Susan's experience offers us some clues.
Susan discovered, as have many others like her, a hidden,
deeper self. She came into her own at Our House. Her interaction with
the homeless, the staff, and the other volunteers, all grappling together
with real issues of consequence, was a process of self-definition. Susan
had to exercise sound judgment in assessing the needs and prospects of
potential Our House residents; forging effective relations with the homeless
called for virtues of character such as courage, truthfulness, and benevolence.
And all of this was in a community Susan would not previously have thought
to be her own.
The term "altruism" is misleading here, if it simply
connotes selflessness. In fact, Susan developed a greater sense of self,
but in a new and more meaningful context. Self-aware rather than self-preoccupied,
she took satisfaction from her work and gained a healthy sense of self-respect.
Volunteers like Susan frequently describe their service as meeting their
own deepest needs, as giving them more than they could possibly give back.
They are referring to "internal goods," the pleasures of relationship
that come with genuine community and friendship. Here altruism's unselfish
interest in the welfare of others makes sense. There is, indeed, an element
of self-denial in working with homeless people, or prisoners, or victims
of domestic abuse, but it is a denial of that self we know to be superficial,
subject to the constantly changing appeals of our consumer society. So
it is that many people find community service liberating. Activities and
acquisitions that once seemed important lose their attraction; "external
goods" such as power, money, and status are no longer compelling.
Susan's work at Our House also challenged the prominent
assumption that personal freedom is the absence of demanding, sometimes
painful interpersonal commitments. In working with homeless mothers, fathers,
and children, Susan became engaged in a way that she found refreshing,
even empowering. In such contexts we clearly can and do make a difference
to someone, and if the match is right, our real talents emerge. Thoughtful
employers are finding that time off for effective community service results
in higher employee morale and creativity on the job. But such engagement,
the kind Susan found, also entails vulnerability. In working with homeless
families, the mentally ill, or children in poor neighborhood schools,
we lay ourselves open to real pain. We cannot simply walk away from our
relationship with a child struggling to overcome a three-grade deficit
in reading, nor can we abandon the teacher in that child's overcrowded
classroom. Surprisingly, perhaps, we no longer want to.
Finally, Susan's interaction with homeless families
enlarged her way of thinking about our society and its injustices. Working
with the disadvantaged is an exercise in critical thinking. Once we start
to see things from the perspective of the other, we read the newspaper
differently, we evaluate our politicians more thoughtfully, and we begin
to alter our own priorities. We all know that the gap between the rich
and the poor in our nation is widening at an alarming rate. We also realize
that some of us have bountiful opportunities to grow and develop, while
others, many others, do not. The kind of community service Susan undertook
personalizes these questions of justice. It engenders a sense of responsibility
for the larger community and often launches us on a collaborative quest
for effective political and economic remedies.
What are the ethical implications we might glean from
these brief observations about Susan's experience at Our House and the
reports of others involved in community service? It is unlikely that community
service can be sustained simply out of duty, a Kantain notion of the categorical
imperative, or its more popular version, the Golden Rule. Likewise, a
utilitarian stance that appeals to the greatest good for me or even for
the greatest number would be hard pressed to withstand the discouraging
setbacks faced by any long-term volunteer. What is missing in each of
these traditional Western moral philosophies is a framework that articulates
the significance of the communities in which service takes place and the
mutual interaction among the "servants" and the "served." An adequate
philosophy of community service would acknowledge the global extent of
our social environment without diminishing the crucial importance of particular
communities. In religious terms, it would have a place for our spiritual
awareness of the transcendent, the sacred whole present to us in and through
the material events of daily life.
The essential elements for such a moral philosophy are
presently at hand, but their convergence requires a cross-disciplinary
conversation. Current work in molecular biology and cosmology argues for
a single creation narrative and the fundamental interrelatedness of all
entities. Fresh appraisals of the Aristotelian tradition of virtue by
communitarians and feminist critical theorists suggest that one's personal
well-being is bound up with the well-being of all others. Religious insights
such as the Buddhist concept of compassion and the Christian idea of incarnation
articulate the humility and empowerment that come when we experience the
universal in the particular. It is time for these streams of thought to
enter into dialogue with one another. When they do, environmentalists
and social activists will make common cause, for the planet like the poor,
suffers from our exploitation. And the planet is our common ground.
--Jerry Irish, professor of religious studies
it Matter if Students Volunteer?
do we like to hear that Pomona students volunteer? Volunteering is nice,
and it's good to know our students these days are nice. Can we claim more
Research on the salutary effects of volunteering applauds
both youth volunteering and adult volunteering, even as it assesses them
differently. Volunteering provides students with formative experiences.
Adults donate labor that makes a difference to the organizations they
serve. As young adults, college-age volunteers are mature and resourceful
enough to be useful, inexperienced and thoughtful enough to learn.
In the U.S., adult volunteering represents an enormous
donation of resources. The major national survey of volunteering, currently
rethinking its own estimates because they seem low in comparison with
results from regional studies, pegs the number of hours volunteered in
1999 at almost 20 billion. That's the equivalent of about 10 million full-time
workers. Roughly one quarter of that time goes to the sorts of faith-based
organizations targeted by George W. Bush's fledgling administration to
shoulder a bigger share of the country's social service provision. Half
of that time goes directly to organizations involved in youth development,
education, health or human services.
Younger volunteers produce less but learn important
lessons. Presented with a list of benefits that might have stemmed from
the volunteering they had done, more than half the teens in a major study
ranked as "very important" five experiences. These were satisfaction found
in helping others, learning to "understand," to "be helpful and kind,"
to "get along with and relate to," and, most frequently, "to respect"
people "different than me." Material advantage (e.g. clarifying career
goals) and greater understanding of community institutions did not rank
as high as these personal lessons about living an engaged life in a diverse
The habit of volunteering seems to stick. One of the
strongest predictors of adult volunteering is whether that person volunteered
as a youth. Scholars are quick to acknowledge that this link may not be
causal. For example, it may be that certain people, those who want to
help others and feel empowered to do so, are likely to volunteer at all
ages. But even among adults with such predisposing attitudes and enough
income to have choices about giving away time, I find that having volunteered
as a youth raises the likelihood of volunteering in any given year from
60 to 78 percent.
Youth volunteering breeds adult volunteering, then,
and adult volunteering produces valued services. Quite apart from these
tangible results, the very process of engaging in volunteering has been
hailed as an asset to society. Major declines in most forms of the "social
capital" connecting Americans to one another have been charted across
the last 35 years and across cohorts born since 1930. It is theorized
that connectedness builds a foundation for the pro-social attitudes--trust
is the typical example--necessary to a smoothly functioning democracy.
Volunteering has held firm in the face this general downward trend, though
we owe much of its stability to those older cohorts who, healthier than
earlier generations were in their retirement years, are picking up some
of the slack. My own work suggests that the relative importance of volunteering
as a form of engagement is substantial. Controlling for age and for several
forms of engagement—working, belonging to or being active in a religious
congregation, belonging to a secular group of some kind, being married,
having gone through college, and volunteering—I find that volunteering
is the only form of engagement that is positively associated with expressing
both trust in others and compassion for others.
A college degree is associated with increased expressions
of trust but with significantly diminished reports of being motivated
by compassion. Happily, the positive effects of volunteering on expressed
compassion are much greater than the depressive effects of college. Pomona
students who find time to volunteer are good bets to become alumni who
trustingly and compassionately bear their added riches in trust for humankind.
--Eleanor Brown. professor of economics
Challenge of Social Responsibility
The stated purpose of a Pomona
education is to "prepare students for lives of personal fulfillment and
social responsibility in a global context." In the 21st century, the social
responsibility part of our purpose will present us with the greatest challenge,
for several reasons. First, the gap between the rich and poor, both within
countries and globally, continues to grow (the United Nations Development
Program recently labeled it "grotesque"). Second, in a knowledge society,
education plays an increasingly significant role in separating those who
possess the means of pursuing the good life from those who don't. Finally,
the very contours of our lives are increasingly shaped by formal rather
than vernacular knowledge, yet the resources that are required for the
conduct of research and development are even more unequally distributed
than income and wealth. In sum, Pomona's very success in providing its
students a superior education unwittingly contributes to the global trend
toward a more unequal and artificial world designed by and for the affluent.
In this context, social responsibility requires more
than good intentions, but it often finds little institutional support.
In research I conducted last year with Judd Legum ('00) on community-oriented
programs at local colleges and universities, we observed a number of factors
that limit their effectiveness. For one thing, these programs are mostly
volunteer options for students, and involve only a few hours per week.
The lack of preparation for community work, the limited hours devoted
to it, and the absence of material recognition for students (such as academic
credit) drive these activities toward the lowest common denominator of
basic skills possessed by the student and routine tasks required by the
host institution. Volunteering can thus become a matter of "putting in
time" (and not very much of it), rather than getting results.
Another problem is that colleges and universities normally
possess far more resources (prestige, human capital, funding) than autonomous
communities. Community-oriented programs often turn out to be unequal
exchanges that serve academe more than the community. I know a number
of cases in which "collaborative studies" between a university and community
organization were actually inquiries driven by powerful elites who were
keeping tabs on grassroots movements, using supposedly neutral academicians
Even when academic-community endeavors are more equal,
the partners are almost always established community groups (churches,
food banks, environmental groups, civil rights advocates, etc.). I have
personally been involved in many projects involving Pomona students with
these types of organizations that have been genuinely beneficial for all
parties, and arguably for society in general. But what is missing from
this picture are the emerging citizen movements that can be the most responsive
to the dispossessed and disenfranchised, and whose greatest need is often
the knowledge resources required to challenge the status quo. Finally,
most community outreach programs focus on service, not research. There
is an increasing sense among community scholars and activists that inquiry
that originates with a community's articulation of its needs and learning
agenda has a greater potential for constructive social change than the
provision of services through established channels.
As in most areas, Pomona College is blessed with a panoply
of fine programs that address our social responsibility purposes. These
include an ad hoc student-faculty-staff committee that advises the President
in his voting on various shareholder resolutions (on issues such as worker
rights and environmental quality) for companies in which the College holds
stock; a student-run Volunteer Center that organizes thousands of hours
of student contributions to worthy causes; the Pomona Partners program
that engages our students with college-bound youth from underprivileged
backgrounds; and the Program in Public Policy Analysis that I am privileged
to direct, in which students complete a half time public affairs internship.
Nonetheless, the challenges presented by a changing
world are escalating, and we can do better. Toward this end, I have been
working with community leaders in Pomona who approached me a few years
back for help in mobilizing local colleges and universities to provide
research support to community groups that need information and analysis
to accomplish their objectives. After extensive discussions on campuses
and throughout the community, we have decided to establish a community-based
research in Pomona.
The objectives of this center will be:
1. To promote social improvement in the Pomona Valley
through research on community development that is designed to enhance
any or all of democracy, social equity, and ecological sustainability.
2. To enhance educational opportunities for students,
faculty and community members through collaboration among them in conducting
3. To develop approaches to research and learning that
promote intellectual, cultural and biological diversity by breaking down
the barriers between academicians and citizens.
The basic concept is to establish a place to which
citizens can bring their questions, and that will organize student and
faculty researchers to help out. While this concept is novel in the United
States, "science shops" at Dutch universities with similar purposes were
established in the 1970's, and have spread throughout Europe. Likewise,
the tradition of participatory action research in Latin America goes back
several decades. There is now a movement toward community-based research
in North America, including a new Center for Popular Education and Community
Research at U.C. Berkeley.
What kinds of things will be studied? The answer partly
depends on what questions the community brings to the center, but topics
can range from the role of the Inland Empire in a global economy to research
and planning for low income housing, charter schools, and local production
for basic needs such as food and electricity.
Pomona students are already involved, including now-alum
Judd Legum, whose senior thesis last year developed a design for the community-based
research center. And Pomona is not the only participant. Our sister institution,
Harvey Mudd College, has created a pro bono engineering clinic (a year-long
senior project for 5-6 students, traditionally completed for a company
or government office that pays for the service) to develop the user interface
for a community computer network in Pomona.
From the educational side of this partnership, the
key is a balanced relationship. By driving campus inquiries from a social
responsibility agenda and practical community needs, we can provide enhanced
educational opportunities for our students at the same time that they
learn how to get results in a very demanding arena.
--Richard Worthington, professor of politics and
coordinator of the Public Policy Analysis Program