Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part II)

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This is the second post in a two part series on a Wiki created by the Colin Powell Center’s Partners for Change fellows to explore themes around the idea of “service”.

During our discussions of “service” in the Partners for Change seminar another emergent theme was “permanence.” Questions and assertions of service projects’ longevity and sustainability were tossed around while trying to define what makes a project effective. In other words, how do we know if service is making an impact? There were several conflicting views on permanence as it relates to service, but all the fellows’ voices were heard. At the end of the unit, and perhaps after some important time for reflection, the fellows produced a collaborative voice in their “Service Wiki.” The following is an excerpt on “permanence.”

An excerpt from “Permanence” (Partners for Change Fellows, 4/5/2012)

Permanence is a common target for critics of service work. Skeptics of volunteer work criticize the fact that most people involved in service do not stay long term in one organization or area of work, which is then characterized as lacking true good intention. Permanence is a fair object of skepticism, however, only when directed towards institutions or programs. If a particular service cannot be continuously provided, then the recipients of the service should be given basic resources to supply and assimilate the service into their everyday life, which allows the service to become less of a service and more of an everyday activity.

For example, instead of bringing canteens of water to those in deserts, build wells. In Joseph Kahne and Joel Westheimer’s “In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning,” two types of service modules are described. One included service work that was only temporary and the second involved a deep understanding of the multiple contributors of the targeted issue in conjunction to the service work. The first example of service was identified as “charity” and the latter as “change.” The “change” module involved social reconstruction and a transformative experience, potentially being able to create more permanence within the service work even after the removal of volunteers. Service work is about bringing change to one’s misfortunes and that is not possible simply through personal contributions, but instead through the implementation of sturdy resources.

READ PART I: Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service

I believe the fellows initially felt so compelled to argue one way or the other on this issue of permanence because they were personally invested in their own service, while also knowing that it would soon end. Other fellows had additionally participated in short service trips in which they felt, though short-lived, their efforts were well received and made an impact. So, we were left with the tough question of whether or not service has to be permanent in order to be effective.

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I really liked the closure the fellows brought to the “permanence” section of the Wiki by referring to Kahne and Westheimer’s discussion of the goals of service viewed through the conceptual lens of “change.” When I think about service as contributing to social reconstruction, it allows individuals to be change agents in a complex social issue whether or not their presence is permanent.

For both the fellows and myself, it seemed to make the issue of permanence a bit less intimidating and a bit more optimistic. In many ways, we should be hoping these projects actually are impermanent, which would indicate that the “social reconstruction” is progressing even after the “removal of volunteers.” Instead of attempting to settle on an answer to the issue of permanence in service projects, the fellows found a conceptual angle through which to look at and think about their service work.

I’m interested to hear if this is a theme that others have grappled with in either thinking about service or their own personal experiences with service? Do you believe there is a certain amount of time a service project must be in place in order to be effective? If so, what is that time frame and why? – Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors.

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