Through Global Youth Service Day, millions of young women and men got involved in their communities last week, often taking their first steps into lives of commitment. That’s a powerful potential force for change. But how do we help them, and ourselves, take the next steps to tackle the roots of the problems we face? Given the morass of America’s national politics, it’s tempting to reserve our money, energy and creativity for trying to help people one-on-one, through efforts that seem purer and less corrupted by ambition and contention than trying to change our country’s national direction. But as I explore in this excerpt from “Soul of a Citizen,” pure volunteerism has its limits as a way to change society.
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A Stanford student once explained how he’d learned more from his community volunteering than from all his courses in school. “I hope that one day,” he concluded, “my grandchildren will get to have the same experience working in the same homeless shelter that I did.” Friends gently reminded him that they were working for a future when people in a country this wealthy wouldn’t need to sleep in shelters. The student meant no harm, but his words raised a question about the relationship between long-term change and the volunteer work that so many of us do in our communities.
Millions of us participate in voluntary activities. We serve in soup kitchens and shelters, conduct literacy programs, read to otherwise isolated hospital patients or the elderly, work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. We teach Sunday school, coach Little League, work at our childrens’ schools, and run churches, temples, mosques, volunteer fire departments, and historical sites. Usually, our motivation is the same as that of citizens involved in more political forms of advocacy: We want to alleviate human pain and affirm a sense of human connection. And we get back similar feelings of personal meaning and common purpose. Clearly, America would be a far meaner society without our efforts.
Yet many of us also find it easier to help our fellow citizens one on one than to exercise our democratic voice. We’re far more likely to volunteer to meet a specific human need than to work to elect wiser leaders or pressure major economic, political, and cultural institutions to act more responsibly. That’s particularly true when the process of shifting larger institutions is difficult, which it often is. But in the process of scaling down our expectations and horizons, we risk allowing the problems we address to grow worse.
Social change and more personal acts of compassion can feed each other. As Jim Wallis of the Christian social justice magazine Sojourners points out, “In any good community center that deals with the problems of youth, the youth workers will spend most of their time talking about how the young people can get their lives together, find the spiritual and moral resources to make responsible choices, and take control of their own futures. Self-respect and mutual respect, cultural identity, community spirit, and social responsibility are all central…. But when describing the wider society, those same youth workers often will speak about the economic, racial, and social oppression that lies at the root of the problems their kids face.”
As Wallis suggests, volunteer efforts can help us regain our sense of connection, offer lifelines to beleaguered communities, and change people’s lives. Like Gandhi’s “constructive program,” where his supporters created local self-help projects, they can create new ways to address urgent problems, such as Habitat’s pioneering work in building affordable houses. For certain kinds of crises, like the situation of young men and women trapped in bleak cycles of violence, the only solution may be to develop powerful relationships with people who can help them feel cared for in ways previously lacking, and show them a different way to live. Indeed, the best responses to many of our society’s ills may be local and decentralized, drawing on such spiritual virtues as love, generosity, a willingness to listen, and the capacity to see a divine spark in even the most desperate and self-destructive of our fellow human beings.
Yet most of these one-on-one approaches require institutional support. In his powerful memoir, “Always Running,” poet Luis Rodriguez describes his journey into East Los Angeles gang life in the 1960s—and how he finally left, thanks largely to the influence and example of a former gang member turned community worker. Now Rodriguez works with Chicago gang kids, running poetry workshops in which young people can express and exorcise their pain. Without the resources that let the community worker turn social intervention into a full-time job, enabling him to spend hours and hours with Luis and his friends, Rodriguez might never have left the gang culture in the first place.
We should work to heal the wounds of our culture whether or not government programs support our efforts. But we should also realize that gang members, for example, need more than mentors and models. They also need jobs to teach them skills, drug treatment programs to help them overcome their addictions, and schools where teachers and counselors can spend the time and energy it takes to stop them from joining gangs or becoming homeless to begin with. Our critical social problems demand both individual and structural solutions. To rely on volunteer efforts is to duck the basic issue of common responsibility, and to ignore the fact that individual crises often result from collective forces.
I’ve seen too many compassionate individuals trying to stem rivers of need, while national political and economic leaders have opened the floodgates to widen them. We build five houses with Habitat for Humanity, while escalating rents and government cutbacks throw a hundred families into the street. We laboriously restore a single stream while a timber company clear-cuts a watershed or global climate change turns once-fertile agricultural land into desert. As the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin once said, “Charity must not be allowed to go bail for justice.”
The Politics of Witness
Greg Ricks, former director of Boston’s powerful youth involvement program, City Year, compared the situation of community service volunteers to people trying to pull an endless sequence of drowning children out of a river. Of course we must address the immediate crisis, and try to rescue the children. But we also need to find out why they’re falling into the river—because no matter how hard we try, we lack the resources, strength, and stamina to save them all. So we must go upstream to fix the broken bridge, stop the people who are pushing the children in, or do whatever else will address the problem at its source.
How do we combine this with a more personal touch? How do we proceed if we’re inclined to act on a more personal level but also want our individual actions to have an impact on a larger scale? The link, I believe, is the concept of witness, developed by people like Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement. We can use our service efforts to help cross daunting boundaries, like those of race and class. We can listen to those who come to the food banks, homeless shelters, and battered women’s centers, and learn how they got there. We can talk to those on the street, and hear their stories. We can work to understand why our society produces so much needless human pain. Appropriate solutions will undoubtedly require supporting powerful local projects with common resources. And we may not always agree on the lessons. But whatever stories we encounter, whatever conclusions we draw, we can’t keep them to ourselves.
The politics of witness involves taking these examples and lessons to the village square—or its contemporary equivalent—and then doing our best to convey them to as many others as possible. It means using them to refute myths that justify callousness and withdrawal. It also implies that we do all we can to help those who are habitually ignored or silenced to find their own voices and platforms, such as the street newspapers sold and often written by the homeless.
An ethic of witness also affirms the bonds that link us. It helps us avoid being so ground down by our efforts to ease day-to-day miseries that we have no time to address their larger context. Given the deep roots of our culture’s winner-take-all individualism, it’s hard for those of us who work in beleaguered communities not to feel defensive, on the losing end of history. We may even mute our voices, lest we offend those whose financial and political resources our community institutions may depend on. Yet at least some of the energy we spend on volunteering should be directed toward the roots of the crises we address. If we want to stop the needless drownings, we must ultimately look upstream.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”
Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.