When describing service, our language matters

Posted on September 15, 2015 by Lucy Adams, Engagement Program Associate and Lindsey Gleason, Communication and Administrative Coordinator.

The needy. The poor. The hungry. The less fortunate. These are words often heard to describe groups of people in our society when we are discussing community service. We hear it all the time on campus promoting university service projects. This language pervades our culture, and we often don’t think twice about it.

Part of it is the environment we live in. Nuance is lost so many of our communications just look at how opposing political sides speak to one another (or rather, yell at each other.) There’s also a tendency to talk up what we do, to make more of it than what it is.

To make it into a shiny Facebook or Instagram post, touting our good work, showing how great we are, doing a little humble-bragging.

Please note we are not saving the world in this photo.
**Please note we are not saving the world in this photo.**

**Please note we are not saving the world in this photo.**

However, words can be misleading — and dangerous.

How we describe other people and ourselves influences how we interact with others, how we treat them, and ultimately how we go about “serving” them. If the people we are serving are the needy, the poor, and the less fortunate, who are we?

Those who don’t need things, right? The rich, the fortunate. The ones with something to give. These words place us in a particular relationship: one is the savior; the other is the person to be saved.

When we reduce service to savee vs. savior so much is lost. When we say “THEY need MY help”, we communicate a certain arrogance. The nuance of service- good, community-oriented service -is lost when we talk like this and approach service this way. We’re at a university.

We need to elevate the conversation and use these critical thinking skills we’ve all paid this university and other institutions so much for. Let’s stop telling just one part of the story- the part where we’re the hero (see: Chimamanda Achichie’s The danger of the single story.)

We don’t do anyone favors when we “otherize” the populations we serve by implying that we have the answers since we have the time and capacity to volunteer some of our time.

Why do we think we have the answers? Because we’re more privileged? We have more resources? We have an education? Does this seem arrogant to anyone else? Let’s remember how much the people we’re serving, and the community partners we’re serving with, have to offer.


Reflection is a vital tool to help process these, and other questions that arise when you're serving.
Reflection is a vital tool to help process these, and other questions that arise when you’re serving.

Reflection is a vital tool to help process these, and other questions that arise when you’re serving.

Our language affects how we serve.

Have you heard the story of the tomatoes in Zambia? A group of Italians traveled to Zambia, with the noble goal of helping the less fortunate. They invested time, money, and effort into planting rows and rows of beautiful tomatoes.

Yet the community refused to help, and wasn’t interested. In his funny and heartfelt TED talk, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” Ernesto Sirolli tells of how as soon as the tomatoes ripened, hippos emerged from the river and destroyed the whole project.

Supposing they’d approached it differently.

If the Italians had asked the Zambians what was needed? If they had respected local knowledge. If they had treated the community as a partner, not as a group of helpless people in need of their expertise? Perhaps that time and energy would have been more worthwhile.

Are we susceptible to the disease of the tomatoes? Yes, as long we see ourselves as selves as saviors helping the “others.” If we approach community service as “we have resources, skills, time [fill in the blank] and we are here to help you,” we run the risk of causing harm, or at best, having no impact at all, “feeding the hippos,” if you will.

If we tell a community organization that we have 30 people ready to help them for two hours on one specific Saturday, why are we disappointed when we are given busy work or turned away? Are we there to help the organization or feel good about ourselves?

We're in this together, so that means everyone's opinions matter, not just our own.
We’re in this together, so that means everyone’s opinions matter, not just our own.

We’re in this together, so that means everyone’s opinions matter, not just our own.

So, let’s treat the community as a partner.

VT Engage tries to put community first in our service projects. What does our partner organization need? How many people can they accommodate? What day and time do they need people?

We do our best to start from these questions, and fit projects to the community. Not the other way around. That way, we can work together to make sure we are serving in the best way we can, and share expertise.

What does this have to do with language?

We need to use language that honors the dignity, knowledge, and life experience of the people we work with, and serve. We need to use language that acknowledges that we’re not the only ones in the room with the answers, and shows we want to listen to those we’re serving.

If we can change our language, and the way we work with community, we will increase our capacity to work toward positive change – and avoid feeding the hippos.

We’re not solving, ending, eradicating, or verb-ing anything in an hour.

Let’s stop overstating what we’re doing. If we talk about “solving homelessness” when we’re advertising a Habitat for Humanity trip or “ending hunger” with a few hours at Feeding America, we’re creating this sense that these problems are easily solved.

Spend a few hours, solve hunger, pat yourself on the back, and go home and forget about it. We can’t approach it that way. We can’t lose the sense of urgency around these problems. We can’t be complacent and think a few hours makes all the difference.

Don’t get us wrong. It DOES help. If we didn’t send students to Feeding America every Friday afternoon, they would need to find replacement volunteers to do the work, and they might not be as reliable as our group. So an inch of progress is still positive. An inch still does something.

But let’s not overstate what we’re doing. These service projects don’t address the underlying, complex reasons why people are homeless or don’t have enough to eat. They act as a cog in one of the wheels of a strategy that addresses hunger or homelessness. They don’t eliminate the issues.

So let’s try to not overstate our work, or any community service work. Let’s remember that so much of it is the jumping off point for students to dive deeper into issues, to think more critically. Our work isn’t the answer to solving anything or saving anyone. Our work is about questioning our assumptions, our privilege, our ideas.

Lucy and Lindsey started at VT Engage on the same day in September 2013. They probably spend too much time together debating the language of service, and other issues.

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September 15, 2015

Posted In: Lindsey, Lucy, Service

First impressions from the field: Smart Beginnings NRV AmeriCorps members

July 27, 2015 – This summer, VT Engage hired four AmeriCorps members to serve for a shortened national service term. During their three months serving Smart Beginnings New River Valley, they are assisting area childcare centers with a variety of projects, from organizing libraries to creating literacy-themed games to reading with children. These are their thoughts on their first month as AmeriCorps members, from how small victories can be a big deal to their creative ideas for literacy games to what to do when no one wants to listen.



Repurposed materials create fun alphabet game

While researching literacy games online, I came across the delightful idea of “fishing for letters.” The website recommended cutting fish shapes out of construction paper, writing letters on them, attaching paperclips to make them magnetic, and then letting children use a magnet to pick up the shapes. I was sure the children at my centers would love this game. After creating a set of waterproof fish using plastic folders, I tried this activity at two of my centers. At both centers, the kids got a big kick out of the vibrant red fish. They were fascinated by the magnet, and “catching” the critters was just enough of a challenge. My fellow AmeriCorps member, Connor, and I helped each child collect the letters needed to spell his or her name, favorite color, or other interesting word. Some children already knew how to spell their names, so this activity reinforced that skill. Others needed help with each letter; however, I think this game built valuable enthusiasm that will make future learning more rewarding. At the end of the activity, each child chose a blank sea creature to take home. Some kids proudly wrote their names; others decorated the sea creature with squiggles. When I went back to Kids Heaven the next day, the kids crowded around me asking if they could get more fish! Construction paper  Fish cut out of construction paper  Fish cut out of construction paper  Fish cut out of construction paper


Keeping their attention

At one of the daycare centers, the lead teacher had us working with the kids on the first day! I worked with the younger kids in the pre-k class, and my fellow AmeriCorps member worked with the older kids. Most of the kids I worked with didn’t even know their letters, so I would have the kids pick out letters from a bucket and tell me what they were. One of the biggest obstacles that I have to face with working individually with kids is that the rest of the class is usually doing something else that the child would rather be doing. The rest of the class was dancing or playing or watching a movie. Many of the children would do a few letters and then get sidetracked and look over to their classmates longingly. I had to come up with a new way of working with the kids. I now ask them what the letter is, what sound it makes, and what words the start with that letter. It is really fun when the child picks out the letter that the their name begins with and they’ll say something like “W! That’s how MY name starts!” or they’ll think of a word I didn’t even think of. One of my favorite things to do with the kids is asking them to spell their names. They may not know how to read, but they can pull out the letters that spell their name and put them in some semblance of order.


Reading with Pre-K

At one of my centers, the teacher gives me a box of “Bob Books”–books that are specially made to help young children learn how to read–to read with the Pre-K students individually. I keep a reading log with the name of the child, what books they read, and how well they did reading them. Though every child struggles with at least a few words in every book, it is great to see them trying to sound the words out and figure it out on their own. There is one child that can sound out every letter but doesn’t yet know how to put all of the sounds together. For instance, if he was trying to read the word “Mat,” he would say “M says mmmmm, a says ahhhhh, t says tuh” but then he would never actually say “Mat.” It is so funny to hear him sound out the words like this while I continue working with him to read the entire word. When I first started going to this center a few weeks ago, the children were shy and didn’t particularly want to read to a stranger. They would spend most of the time silently staring at the book and never actually reading the words. Now, they are excited to read with me and put effort into every word. Rhyme Cards  Rhyme cards  Seeds  Seeds Above: A few examples of some of the games and literacy activities created by our AmeriCorps members.


Teamwork makes the dream work

This week was definitely the most impact I’ve felt I’ve had on the kids. A couple of kids at one of my centers were fighting and arguing with each other and I had to step in to help. Both the kids are kind of like my shadow, meaning they never leave my side when I’m there. So, I told each of them that instead of arguing we should try to work together. I then had them put their hands together with mine and on three we shouted teamwork. I then told them the phrase, “teamwork makes the dream work.” When I came back the next few days both kids repeated that same phrase and it seems to work whenever they have disagreements. I originally had to explain what the phrase meant and ever since they’ve really gotten into it and are kind of using it as a mantra whenever they are in disagreement.

Our summer members with Kristen Pace, former AmeriCorps VISTA member (middle.)
Our summer members with Kristen Pace, former AmeriCorps VISTA member (middle.)


Submitted by Victoria ChildressJessica LevyKatie Testut, and Connor Donovan. For more information on how you can get involved in our AmeriCorps program, head here. The application for our fall positions is now open.

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July 27, 2015

Posted In: AmeriCorps, Service