Imagine.Engage. Reflect. Repeat: Forty years of civic work

An anniversary is always a good time to take measure of where we have been, where we are and where we might go. So, when I look ahead, Compact’s thirtieth anniversary next year provokes me to consider the arc of the work we do and to consider my own path within this larger story. Next year, I also mark a personal anniversary. In 1971, I joined VISTA, finding my way to southeastern Alabama for a year of service–a short 45 years ago. This year turned out to be the most determinative event of my life. From that year, I can trace an unsteady path from my sojourn in the south to my early career in child welfare and corrections to my later time at the Compact’s national office twenty years later to my current position as a faculty member. Throughout all of this work, one question has haunted me–whether working in the state prison or behalf of foster children or building houses in Alabama or teaching sociology at a private university: how do I understand what I am doing when I aim to be of service? And after decades of being in the company of some people who I think are the finest I will ever meet, I think this question haunts many of them, as well.

We could consider this question as a standard reflective practice—a way to understand our experiences—but I think it is much more important than a learning exercise to tick off as end a particular project. I think of questions like these as our life’s work, creating and calibrating the compasses we use to steer our hearts, minds and souls. I think about how the purest of intentions have formed some of our local, national and international efforts to do good and I have to consider why and how these so often go awry. I think about how those of us who do this work appear to those whom we aim to help. In my own experience, I think about how a ragtag group of twelve long-haired young people from the north looked to the poor black folks in rural Alabama when we showed up to “help.” I reflect upon what their white neighbors may have made of us and our intentions. So many decades later, I can still hear the echoes of those conversations when my host family asked, “Didn’t your family need you at home?” or when the waitress at the restaurant said to us, “Things must be very bad down here for you to trouble yourself to come all this way.” All those misunderstood motives for our being there put me on a path to question my own reasons and purposes for service.

That year of service taught me many things, most of which were most likely not the part of any administrator’s strategic plan. Our planned projects—building houses, organizing the community improve the distribution of commodity foo, extending family planning—became so complicated and difficult that I finally understood that the art and science of helping and bettering the world was much more complex than simply planting that disposition in one’s heart. The challenge was to not allow those difficulties and complications to stop us from doing what we believe ought to be rightly done. This is as true on our campuses today as it was in rural Alabama forty years ago.

There are many benefits to being a member of service-learning and community engagement communities. I have never worked in a field where there are so many individuals to emulate. I find myself taking on mentors who have no idea I have chosen them to guide and enrich my work. One of my heroes, Ira Harkavy quoted Chilean sociologist Eugenio Tironi in a recent speech.

The answer to the question “What kind of education do we need?” is to be found in the answer to the question, “What kind of society do we want…If human beings hope to maintain and develop a particular type of society, they must develop and maintain the particular type of education system conducive to it.

This point is a critical one if we in higher education believe we have something to offer to the public, as a public good, well beyond career training and a narrow agenda. And, I would argue, well beyond mandatory community service projects and days of service. What I have learned after two decades in this field is that we need to be both ambitious in our aims and humble in our approaches. I will try to make these points as clearly as I can. First, I have been thinking deeply about what we need as citizens and members of our communities to be full-fledged members of our community. In teaching sociology at Bryant, I try to help students understand all the ways that their lives are implicated in the lives of others. So, we think about ways to be more conscientious in what and how we consume, to be more thoughtful about philanthropy, to be better informed about public events, to be careful researchers, to design new approaches to social problems, and to be accountable for our actions, especially those meant to do good. This is what I meant about ambition or maybe, more correctly, vision. It is just too easy to keep doing what we have been doing without considering how we might take on more. As Tompkins reminds us,

 The classroom is a microcosm of the world; it is the chance to practice whatever ideals we may cherish. They kind of classroom one creates is the acid test of what it is one really stands for.

Onto my second point. The lesson here may seem remote. A recent article in the New York Times traced the impact of the campaign to distribute millions of mosquito nets to eradicate malaria—an effort that has had multiple unanticipated negative consequences. Play Pump met with a similar fate. Great excitement over a cool idea. Millions of dollars to ramp up and spread this innovation. Six months later, most pumps were out of service and residents were left with less access to water than they had before the pumps were installed. We don’t have to go to far off regions to find other instances where our own intentions went away. As I wrote earlier, these issues are complicated. This is not to say that we are not obligated to do much better and bigger than we do at doing good; the second lesson suggests we be as careful with the lives and life-spaces of others that we seek to help as we would be of our own lives and communities.

New York Times columnist David Brooks offers two paths for living a worthwhile life. The first, the well-planned life, is the one we typically suggest to students–that they find their passions and follow these. We argue that it is only when we are deeply inspired by own dreams that we accomplish anything of significance. Brooks suggests an additional path, which he calls the summoned life. In contrast to the first model, individuals drawn to the summoned life believe that, as Brooks writes, that “life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored.” And because of this, we have to be open and engaged to pose the questions that Brooks suggests, “What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?” To these questions, I would add, “And what can we do as educators to help students develop those visions, skills, and values that get us closer to the society we want?”


About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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