A Call to Service
The Obama presidency has begun with a resounding call to service. While an active citizenry and an ethos of participation is something necessary and worthy of celebration, it is not a sufficient condition for real change.
Historically, America has always been a volunteer society. So have most others. In fact, volunteer behavior like collaboration is what makes society─ even competitive society─ possible. We rely on unpaid help from others in all walks of life, starting at home and in the neighborhood.
But if volunteerism is to pave the way to community renewal and national recovery it will have to be planful. And if it is to be the engine of an active citizenry, it must also be considered more than a charitable reflex. What is the difference?
If volunteerism were to become a significant factor of creating change in societies...
- Schools would integrate service into the definition of self and citizen promoted by the curriculum. Every service experience would be treated as a skill development and conceptual growth opportunity, not merely a feel-good resume filler.
- Service would not replace jobs where budgets fail - including household service in families, which is the unacknowledged foundation of working spouses trying to keep things together under economic pressures today.
The kind of service performed is important too. On one hand, any service can make a valuable contribution. But all too often youth involved in service never gain experience in “blue collar” jobs, like Fire and Ambulance (although so many American towns and villages depend on volunteers in these areas!).
So much─ in community skills, diverse relationships, and community spirit─ could be gained with the right approach.
Pre-collegiate school service, including “blue” activity, would also help youngsters feel useful and valued. When esteem goes up, so does school concentration. In addition, actual field-based knowledge and reflection would enhance academic performance.
Finally, invoking the helper-therapy principal (identified by Frank Riessman years back: where 'the helper gains more, or as much as, the helped') would make service a key component of efforts to reform schools in the interest of learning, and balance the demand of tests for grades with the "test" of community value.
Service could be an experience in community building that would stand individuals and communities in good stead in the face of disaster. It could even lead to voting in all elections as a norm, with local offices getting full and reasoned public debates and turn-out.
Volunteerism alone just isn't enough. Water flowing in rivers is critical to sustaining life, but it is a raw force that needs to be channeled in order to be useful. Like water running wild, the service of many will change the shape of what's around us, but not necessarily in a direction we choose or need.