Make a Difference: The Challenge and Reward of Community Service

With the Bush administration working to dismantle the New Deal, the need for Americans to give something back to their communities has never been greater.

| Wed Jan. 26, 2005 4:00 AM EST

[This essay is adapted from Make a Difference: America's Guide to Volunteering and Community Service, by Arthur I. Blaustein. Copyright (c) 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Publishing Unit of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Used by permission.]

The highest calling of every individual in a democratic society is that of citizen! – Thomas Paine

Citizen participation is the lifeblood of democracy, and the traditions of community service and citizen participation have been at the heart of American civic culture since before the nation was founded. Whether through town hall meetings, the local school board, a political party, a hospital auxiliary, or one of our countless other national and local organizations, Americans have felt and acted on the need to give something back to their communities. The events of the past four years, starting with the attacks of Sept. 11, and continuing through two bloody wars abroad, and a third -- the war on terror – at least partly fought at home, combined with a listless economy and the ruinous policies of a radical administration – one bent on dismantling the social contract that has defined American life since the New Deal -- makes this need all the more urgent.

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What You Can Do For Your Community

There are countless creative and useful ways to express compassion, energy, concern, and patriotism. If four years of Bush rule have spurred you to want to make a difference; if volunteering is one of those things you’ve been meaning to do all along but just haven’t gotten around to, or if you’re just curious about what’s out there, this essay can help you take the next step.

There is no shortage of organizations to volunteer for. Before you select an organization to volunteer for, ask yourself a few questions: How much time do you want to serve? What kind of service fits your personality? What neighborhood and community do you want to work in? Which target population do you want to work with? What skills do you have to offer? What would you like to gain from the experience?

If, for example, you’re over seventeen, can commit a full year, and would like leadership training, some income, and a stipend, you should seriously consider AmeriCorps, where you’ll be able to work as a teacher or with environmental, health-care, or public-safety projects. If you want to commit a year and you’re over eighteen and want to work on environmental, art, or music projects or in community development, you should think about Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). If you have only a weekend or one day a week, you like working with your hands, and you want to be outdoors, Habitat for Humanity, which builds housing for low-income residents in your community, will probably be perfect. If you only have a few hours a week and enjoy children, consider mentoring or tutoring with an educational group. It might take some reflection and research on your part, but there is a fulfilling opportunity for everyone.

Reactionary Myths

Volunteering is not a conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican issue; caring and compassion simply help to define us as being human. Unfortunately, opportunistic radio talk show hosts and reactionary politicians have spread two false myths about community service. The first is that only inner-city minorities benefit from volunteer efforts. In fact, over 67 percent of America’s poor are white, and white families with children are the fastest-growing homeless population. And volunteer social programs are in fact color-blind.

The second myth is that the vast majority of individuals who volunteer for community service are naive, idealistic do-gooders. Not true. The vast majority of volunteers I’ve worked with are serious realists. They are only too aware that as a nation, we cannot squander our human and natural resources. Community service not only exposes the sterility of this kind of idealism-versus-realism debate, but helps individuals to integrate their own idealism and realism in a healthy way. An idealist without a healthy dose of realism tends to become a naive romantic. A realist without ideals tends to become a cynic. Community service helps you put your ideals to work in a realistic setting. It creates a dynamic tension that gives you a coherent and comprehensive approach to complex problems. I’ve seen it happen time and again with my students and with VISTA and AmeriCorps volunteers. Dr. Margaret Mead, one of my teachers in graduate school, wrote that a truly healthy person is a thinking, feeling, acting person. That’s what serving helps us to achieve.

What Community Service Can Do For You

Community service is very much a two-way street. It is about giving and receiving, and the receiving can be nourishing for the heart and mind. The very act of serving taps into a wellspring of empathy and generosity that is both personally gratifying and energizing. This happened to me during my own community service thirty-five years ago, when I taught in Harlem during the early years of the War on Poverty and VISTA. And it is now happening to my students who do service-learning, as an assignment, in each of my classes at the University of California.

My students now, and I back then, confronted the complexities of the everyday worlds of individuals and communities quite different from our own. We were forced to deal with difficult social and economic realities. It was an eye-opener to learn about the inequities and injustices of our society, to see firsthand the painful struggles of children who did not have the educational, social, or economic opportunities that we took for granted. This experience was humbling, and it broke down my insularity, for which I’m truly grateful. Dr. Margaret Mead called this “heart-learning.”

Community service also taught me an important lesson about our society: ethical values and healthy communities are not inherited; they are either recreated through action by each generation, or they are not. That is what makes AmeriCorps, VISTA, and other forms of community service – for young and old --unique and valuable. They help us to regenerate our best values and principles as individuals and as a society. My experience as a teacher and with service-learning has taught me that moral and ethical values cannot survive from one generation to the next if the only preservatives are academic texts or research studies. Real-life experience is the crucible for shaping values. Out of it develop an intuition and a living memory that are the seeds of a humane and just society.

Now More Than Ever

Volunteers are needed in America today in record numbers. People are in trouble—and they are turning to voluntary organizations for help. Millions of Americans—middle class, working class, professionals and business executives—have experienced a loss of job, a business or small farm failure, a personal bankruptcy, a loss of pension or retirement income. And millions more are only a layoff, an illness, a divorce, or an accident away from falling into poverty.

The Bush administration, it is clear, has adopted policies that amount to a war against the poor and the middle class. The tax and budget cuts—the Bush economic plan—are in reality a carnival for wealthy speculators and hell on earth for the poor, with the middle class being squeezed further. The cuts were not made to jump-start the economy nor to create jobs; they were simply massive transfers from social programs to pay for new tax giveaways for the rich and for defense contractors who just happen to be campaign contributors.

Rather than opportunity, justice, equality, and vitality, the Bush prescription for economic stimulus amounts to inequality, economic cronyism, and acquiescence; and human needs become subordinated to political and technical arrogance. People programs are out, and tax avoidance schemes are made respectable and legal.

Bush’s Second Term

What can we expect in Bush’s second term? As Robert Frost wrote, “I have seen the future, and I don’t advocate it.” This administration is pandering to—and exploiting—the most regressive and antisocial tendencies in our national character. It is undermining trust in the ability of the one force, government, that has the potential to balance, secure, and protect the freedoms and liberties of all our people and to balance public and private interests. A vital and healthy federal government is indispensable to the well-being and sovereignty of a self-governing people. That is, after all, what democracy is all about. Without this protection, whole segments of our society –especially those who can least afford it—will give up hope, will become more frustrated and alienated, and this can serve only to undermine the very social fabric of all our communities even more.

Bush's plan for privatizing Social Security, while claiming to save it, is a smokescreen for giving a huge bonanza to the securities industry who are big GOP contributors. It's a risky proposition that could well drive millions of the elderly into destitution and cost the American taxpayers trillions of dollars. Social Security is the target today, but the real goal is to destroy our nation’s social contract as well as the safety net, for all Americans, put in place by the New Deal.

His priority of making his last four rounds of tax giveaways, to corporations and the rich, permanent, will serve to further the growing and shameful maldistribution of wealth in our nation. The resulting inequities will turn us into a "banana republic". Instead of being the "land of opportunity" we're fast becoming a "land of opportunists".

As for his clarion call for an "ownership society"; when you strip the rhetoric from the pitchman's facade what you find is a gimmick devoid of substance. It's an updated and sanitized version of Richard Nixon's "minority enterprise" scheme that was a failure thirty years ago. The Republican Party is adept at coming up with high-minded, fig-leaf slogans that don't cost a dime and perpetuate unjust and rigged economic policies.

The Bush economic plan, as well as the administration’s overt antisocial political policies, are not based on a commitment to any high principles of freedom, liberty, equality, justice, or opportunity; They are instead based on the very narrow personal prejudices and biases of a group of men who have been motivated by the acquisition of money and power.

Dr. Seuss reminded us in The Lorax that nothing is going to get better unless someone like you cares enough to pitch in and make it happen. September 11, 2001, as tragic and traumatic as it was, can serve as a transformative event for Americans. We responded to this crisis with introspection, generosity, and caring. Now is not the time to push the snooze button and return to civic fatuity and complacency. Just as we marshaled our forces and mobilized our capacities to confront a foreign enemy, we must take action and confront our domestic economic and social problems on the home front. In the real world, we know that taking ordinary initiatives can make a difference. It is within our power to move beyond a disaster and economic crisis and to create new opportunities. What it comes down to is assuming personal responsibility. If we decide to become involved in voluntary efforts, and become politically active, we can restore idealism, realism, responsiveness, and vitality to our institutions and our communities.

At her memorial service, it was said of Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential American woman of the twentieth century, that “she would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” What was true for her then is true for us now. The choice to make a difference is ours.

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