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.**
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.
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.
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.