During the DukeEngage Academy (the 2-day pre-departure training session for all DukeEngage students), we discussed “community service,” “help,” and “partnership.” This week we asked students to think about “How have your notions of what these words mean shifted if at all? Has it changed what you will do in the future or how you think about past experiences?”
Stephanie Kershaw has interned at the Ms. Foundation this summer.
“Community service”, “Helping”, “partnership”, “solidarity.” What do these words mean? If there is one thing I have learned for certain this summer it is that language and vocabulary are pivotal in the non-profit sector. The words we choose must be accessible, understandable, and relatable not just for the organizations that use them, but for the communities that they hope to create change in. Ultimately, the terms that are chosen have to be appropriate for the situation; however I do have some immediate reactions to several words that we have been grappling with going into this summer.
“Community service.” Community service never meant anything to me except obligation turned extra-credit. When I lived in Maryland, it was a graduation requirement that I came to detest. There was no sense of urgency or desire to be the change I wanted to see in my community, rather I would often times hunt for the easiest, most convenient means necessary to complete the mandatory 75 hours. I “served” my community by cleaning out stalls at a local rescue horse shelter, tutoring younger students occasionally, and attending “mission trips” for Youth Group (imagine my delight- it was killing two birds with one stone since Youth Group was a gold star that my parents always wanted to see) that never forced me to give up too much time for other things. It became exactly what the word described: “service,” doing work for someone in exchange for something else which in my case was the opportunity to graduate. There was no purpose, no end goal other than the diploma. Later, after we moved and the service requirement no longer loomed over my head, those 75 hours I had accrued became a symbol for colleges that I was a contender. Not only was a good student, but I also participated in a plethora of extra curriculars including community service?? I must really have my priorities straight.
This is not to say that this is what community service is to everyone. I am sure that many people use the term to describe the actions that they take in their lives to better the community. But in my experience, this often involves simple, band-aid actions of fleeting involvement. A task may be completed, but it is very surface level. What actually changes? The reason that the issue or disparity is present is never explored and remedied, and even more than that, there is a strong sense of “helping them”, “for them”. There is no understanding or recognition of a collective fight.
In contrast, this summer has given me a moment of “solidarity”; a strong sense that my struggles are linked to the trials and tribulations of others. At the Ms. Foundation, I would often hear the staff talk about their goal of “bringing the margins in.” The thought is that if we provide access and fight for social change from the margins, inward, then collectively we will fare better. This made logical sense to me, and I felt myself continually nodding along meeting after meeting- “yeah yeah yeah, makes perfect sense. Got it. Ok great.” However, after working on my economic and immigrant justice fact sheets, I would still find myself recounting these facts to friends in horror and saying “this is such an injustice….for them” (them being women in poverty or migrant women). I had no sense “their” struggles were in anyway linked to mine. When I started my reproductive justice fact sheet however, it was like I suddenly had all the pieces of the puzzle. Through that fact sheet, the connection to abortion and rights to make safe, educated decisions about our own bodies, I began to piece together how these were not just “immigrant issues” or “welfare issues” but women’s issues. I can see now that reproductive rights are directly linked to health care, to economy, to education, to class, to location, to legal status, to violence and completely encompassed in this broader scope of power dynamics. It was an “aha” moment of solidarity, and also a moment of real understanding of what it means to be a part of a women’s collective; like an army, we stand together through every skirmish, not just the ones that we feel like fighting.
I am not entirely sure that I have found the right word that resonates with my when talking about the organization and mobilization for social change. As I previously mentioned, different situations call for different vocabulary. Sometimes “collaboration” or “coalition” are an option (words I am learning to navigate), while sometimes “helping” with an understanding of implicit privilege and offering up your resources is best. What is important is that everyone agrees and understand in the language within the situation so that if nothing else, everyone is on the same page.