After a hazy first week of classes, I spent most of this weekend at a Landis staff retreat preparing for the upcoming year; and with that, my semester officially began. I’ve worked with the Landis Center ever since my freshman year, both as an America Reads tutor and as a program coordinator. During this retreat, we spoke of complaints the office had received, of possible solutions, and of enacting swift and major changes. As I looked around the room, I could sense the discomfort of my fellow staff members, many of whom have been involved with Landis for years and, like me, had grown complacent in a familiar routine. Yet I felt that this was a healthy unease, one that forced all of us to critically examine our motives and the consequences of our actions, and whether or not our actions are congruent with our words.
If anything, our discussion forced me to reflect even more on the concepts of community and community service. As my Facebook newsfeed becomes flooded with updates on ice bucket challenges, Teach for America acceptance emails, and the ever-ambiguous service trip to Africa, I become increasingly skeptical of the term community service. What are our motives behind these seemingly harmless acts of benevolence; more importantly, whose community are we serving exactly?
We’ve all been raised to idolize generosity and selflessness; with images of Mother Theresa, the Good Samaritan, and recent superstar Pope Frances dancing in our heads, we eagerly praise those who “give back” to the community. But even the Good Samaritan must have added “philanthropist” to his resume at some point, just as I tactfully highlight my experience through Landis in job applications and interviews. The truth is that people generally make decisions that will benefit themselves, even at the cost of another’s well-being. Think I’m too harsh? Try to host a brown-bag without free pizza.
I believe that community service is a mindset and not an action. I grew up in the U.S., which places heavy emphasis on the individual, but I come from a culture that is dedicated to the needs of the whole. This fissure in ideologies has caused a great deal of drama and confusion in my life, but I found a happy and productive medium by the way of community service. I realized that I am not a member of a greater community; rather, my community is an essential part of my identity, therefore its successes and failures are also my own. In a sense, I serve my community in order to serve myself.
Considering this, it is unacceptable to view hate crimes against gay teens, racially charged police brutality, or sexual assault as anybody’s problem but our own. I have not faced any of these particular issues personally, but these injustices affect me as a member of a shared society. I constantly strive to address these problems in the small ways that I can: by educating others, by listening and learning, and by embracing discomfort as an opportunity for change.
Much of our retreat was spent working in Easton’s urban farm. Now, I’m not really the gardening type, and that is because farm work sucks. It’s back-breaking, tedious, sweaty work that leaves you with ruined jeans and an awkward tan afterward. All produce from the garden goes to feed the West Ward, so I will not be enjoying the fruits of my labor, let alone the labor itself. Yet I found joy in working in Easton, for if my small contribution could help move our community to a better place, all the toil would be worthwhile.