Rethinking volunteerism

In general I find surveys to be very trying experiences. I always imagine my actions and opinions falling into an ambiguous gray-area that is consistently unacknowledged by the survey authors. For this reason, these surveys take me an inordinately long time to complete, and yet I still click “DONE” with the lingering doubt about whether my responses are reflective of my actions and opinions in any way that is true to myself and helpful to the researcher. However, when I completed my Williams PULSE survey last week, I admitted with some guilt but with very little doubt that, no matter the phrasing of the question (which appeared in various incarnations), I have not participated in any community service since I have been at Williams.

My first instinct was to feel bad about this. After all, I loosely self-identify as an overachieving, perfection-seeking Williams student and therefore community service – which embodies everything that is selfless, generous and altruistic – should obviously be something I do. Everyone tells me that community service is fun, easy and enormously productive. Anyone can do it; there’s no reason not to. If you don’t, you either don’t care or are frighteningly lazy. And yet, I don’t think of myself as an idle, apathetic person. I am concerned by many issues of social justice, yet I am also concerned with the immediate that exists in my life: being sincere and honest in my actions, having enough time to do my work and participate in extracurriculars without being a sleepwalking meal-date zombie (though this has happened anyway).

I don’t participate in community service because it seems in some ways fake and contrived. In my mind, the pursuit of community service and the pursuit of getting into college will always be hopelessly intertwined. I think of the begrudging and halfhearted efforts of teenagers who will drop all pretensions of a lifelong passion for leaf-raking once they receive that acceptance letter in the mail. In short, I think community service has been co-opted by institutional self-promotion tactics. It is a feather in one’s cap, and yet it creates a concept of community commitment and involvement that happens within the closed confines of a two-hour shift or a “random act of kindness.” It creates an attitude about societal change that is content to accomplish very little, and perhaps is even complicit to some extent in masking the gravity of the problems it is trying to solve. Why should community service be privileged over the other activities the PULSE survey suggested I might devote my week to? Is someone necessarily apathetic if they choose not to engage in this kind of activity? Does community service really accomplish all that it claims, or is it just a deceptive mode of self-congratulation? 

I think that community service is predicated on a very specific concept of community involvement. As I see it, the central tenet of community service is the act of offering up one’s privilege as a charity to the less fortunate. The idea then behind this service is not that it be most convenient and beneficial for the giver, but rather that it offer the most benefit to the recipient of this service. In this sense, the gesture of community service entails a sacrifice – of time, money, energy, emotional reserves. However, most people do not engage in community service because they have a masochistic drive towards self-sacrifice. Rather, they say that the beauty of community service is in the mutual benefit it confers on both giver and recipient. For the giver, it is personally rewarding because she feels like she is making a difference in someone’s life, and for the recipient it is rewarding because he has a bowl of soup in front of him. Yet what exactly constitutes this feeling of personal reward? And what is so admirable about assuming agency in the life of a stranger? While I think community service does fulfill much of its promise, I think these benefits are often exaggerated and conflated. What makes me feel good about myself will not always be what is best for others, thus I approach this formulation of community service with some skepticism. I question whether community service is as easy-yet-productive as many would have me believe. 

Does Williams promote community service for the purposes of PR or because we think it is something that will enrich student life or because we think it is a necessary service to our environs? Maybe all of these purposes are served. If so, that is great. I don’t write with the intention of dissuading people from doing community service. Doing something is usually more worthwhile than doing nothing. However, this does not give us the excuse to frolic around in our purple bubble of community love without thinking more critically about the complex motives behind what it is we do. We should be upfront about these complex mutual benefits that arise from community service, and mindful of the problematic source of our pleasure as charity givers.

Nora Spiegel ’10 is an English major from Brooklyn, N.Y.