The baggage that accompanies service

By Miriam Larson

I find myself repeatedly enticed by nicely packaged volunteer opportunities. I am addicted to the feeling of usefulness granted by community service; it seems to redeem my unjust privilege and express my opposition to societal injustice. But recently, I have developed mistrust for my attraction to volunteerism and service work. Service opportunities are increasingly promoted as feel-good adventures into Other worlds, particularly for educated middle-class white audiences. Privileged peopleƒ?TMs obligation to society is thus made easy; it is limited to clearly delineated work that requires no long-term commitment. It does not challenge systemic inequality because that would threaten our comfort and power.

This commodification of service casts volunteer opportunities in light of the way they benefit and are convenient for the volunteers. I have benefited in many ways from volunteer opportunities. Here I am, for example, publishing an opinion piece based on my experience as a volunteer. I recently went on the Hurricane Katrina relief trip, which was conveniently short and scheduled for J-Term. I got credit for an independent study I did in conjunction with the trip. And though Hurricane Katrina survivors continue to rebuild their neighborhoods and fight for their right to insurance and government support, I am telling their stories through my perspective while their voices have faded from the media.

This last example demonstrates how volunteers benefit disproportionately from volunteering. I have gained a valuable experience that I can bring up at my leisure but I have no lasting obligation to the struggles on the Gulf Coast. The majority of the people we helped, however, do not have the resources or leisure to leave behind their destroyed communities. Though issues such as the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast are political, volunteer projects tend to de-politicize the problem in order to appeal to a wider audience of people.

Service that appeals to the volunteers ultimately gives them power to control how an issue is addressed. Herein lies my biggest problem with the good intentions of privileged people at large: we have control over how much we are willing to sacrifice and witness, but feel the liberty to walk away when we choose because it is overwhelming emotionally or because we have to go back to school or because it is too expensive or because we might have to sacrifice our prestige.

The recent resignation of the Latino Studies professor, Maria Elena Cepeda is a perfect example of this privileged institutionsƒ?TM unwillingness to change their ways to accommodate the needs of an historically under-represent faculty person. Though Macalester claims to value service to society, it still wields the power to set limits on its commitment.

Casting service in this light may offend the good intentions of someƒ?”it certainly has offended my good intentions. This is particularly so because these conclusions suggest that social service is used as a scapegoat for the maintenance of inequality.

Unfortunately, I agree that service work reinforces the categorization of privileged and needy people and thus is inherently unequal. However, I believe there is an alternate framework for approaching service work that requires accountability from all people.

This framework begins by admitting the inherent inequality and contradiction of service work. Though we lock ourselves in the ivory tower in pursuit of reason that will eliminate contradictions, we cannot impose order on all of life. Instead, I think it is sometimes necessary to embrace humility.

Secondly, this framework recognizes service to society as a community endeavor that requires the accountability of all members. This accountability does not allow good intention to excuse unfair benefits of privilege. I must challenge my unfair benefits as a white, middle class educated person just as I commit to work for the increase in respect and opportunity for under-represented people.

To end on a concrete example, it was with pleasure that I participated in the March for Immigrant Rights in Minneapolis with more than two thousand people. This event was partially sponsored by the Community Service Office and embraced the political struggle for immigrantsƒ?TM rights. The march was in protest of Governor Pawlentyƒ?TMs recent legislation proposals that increased intervention and surveillance by authorities with the purpose of reducing undocumented immigration.

Unfortunately, these proposals would open the door for harassment of legal immigrants and would likely affect all people of color. I felt that my participation in this event was just as important as the myriad of other packaged and un-packaged opportunities to serve society.

This piece was informed by writing on volunteerism and white privilege, particularly by Marilyn Frye, Adam Fletcher, Robert McKnight and Molly McClure.

Miriam Larson ƒ?TM08 is a columnist for The Mac Weekly Opinion section. Contact her at [email protected]