(The following post is a distillation of my opening remarks at the 2013 Central Region Conference on Service, held on 9 May 2013 in West Valley City. Thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to participate in the conference.)
Ten years ago I would have been speaking about the need for more service in our communities, particularly from young people. But it is no longer the case that young people are lagging in service or lacking in a commitment to the common good. Schools have a more intense focus on service, young people serve more, and the expectation to be involved in the community is more broadly felt now than at any time during my lifetime.
But while service happens more, and is more central to our culture, it is not clear to which ends we hope service takes us as communities. In many ways, our problems seem larger than ever. Income inequality is greater, poverty is rising, educational attainment at the national level has hardly budged in years, trust is in decline.
So how can we make sense of the contrast between the blossoming of volunteerism and the coarsening of public life? There are of course many potential explanations--that service has actually slowed the decline in public life, or that our problems require more money and power than service can provide, for example.
I would like to propose an additional explanation, one that doesn’t get talked much about, but which I think is essential to the well-being of our communities. it is that the volunteer sector has failed to focus on one thing that makes community life better--getting smarter. By "getting smarter" I do not mean raising student test scores or adopting fancier software or better planning metrics. I mean instead that service organizations, volunteers, public officials, and philanthropists should help communities learn together, be more reflective, respond to problems more wisely, be more democratic, and have a better politics.
So let me offer seven ways of thinking about the components of service and civic life that are likely to make communities smarter in the ways I have described above.
My thinking on these topics has been influenced by several books on community and civic life, all of which share a focus on local, self-organizing communities over big, centralized communities. Those books are Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Remarkable Communities that Arise in Disaster, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy , Mary Parker Follet's The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government , Milton Kotler's Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life, and Roger Scruton's How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.
Taken together these works, and my own experience with volunteerism as a source of community change, suggest adopting the following ways of thinking if the goal is a smarter community:
- Broaden the definition of service--too much service or volunteerism (including service-learning) begins with a tightly defined role for volunteers (tutor this child, for example) and a pre-determined outcome for that service. But the stories of communities that get smarter suggest that service needs to be more broadly defined, with roles improvised in response to particular issues. Improvised roles both ensure that old responses don't get blindly applied to new settings, and that volunteers must stretch intellectually and politically in response to new challenges.
- Tighten the definition of community--for a sector that is devoted to community service, we do very little to think about what a community is, or what sort of community is best situated to respond to a problem. Instead, we talk about "serving the community" or we really mean service to individuals rather than a community. But an effort that makes a community smarter must constantly return to the question, "who is our community." Generally, the most successful learning communities are defined either by narrow geography (a neighborhood) or by community of interest (a church).
- Narrow the scope of the problem--too often the rhetoric of problem-solving gets ahead of reality, and so we talk about eradicating poverty, or raising the global competitiveness of the nation. But service can not erase poverty or fix America's schools. Poverty and education have too many local components. But while service cannot fix them, but it can can respond to poverty in a particular neighborhood or a particular church. It cannot "raise test scores" but it can help a particular school.
- Make mutual aid the way of working--service-learning programs often talk about "reciprocal relationships" where both parties in service receive benefits from the act of service. But in the stories of communities that get smarter, people don't serve each other directly. Instead, they serve a cause--responding to a disaster, fixing a city's sanitation system, etc.--and by so doing people's lives improve in indirect and deeper ways.
- Rethink the role of politics-- Volunteerism either eschews politics or calls for political solutions to a problem. But in instances where communities get smarter through service, politics plays a different role. It verifies and enshrines the learning of a community by making policies that sustain the headway that service has made. In this sense, politics is a learning outcome, or to borrow historian Christopher Lasch's formulation in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, “ democracy[is] not as the most efficient but...the most educational form of government."
- Consider service itself primarily as a way of learning--If you talk with people involved in building smarter communities through volunteerism, they will describe service as the activity that teaches them about the community, about others, and about themselves. This formulation flies in the face of service-learning and other formal approaches to service which tend to think about service as a way of doing good that takes on meaning only through reflection.
- Ensure that love is the most important outcome--in almost every story of communities learning through service, love emerges as the most important outcome for the participants. But the formal volunteer sector almost never talks about love, as a motivation or an outcome. We ought to attend to at least three types of love as the outcomes of learning through service. For some people, it is the love of place that deepens (Scruton is especially good on this point), for others, the love of the issue, and for still others, the love for other people. But whatever form it takes, the language of love and the evidence of love are the things that endure once the initiative is done. And it is love that gives participants strength to continue to learn and serve.