Civic Engagement

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 11.04.30 AMThis is the old hobo sign for “kind lady.” I first saw it when I was quite young and thought it would be a great thing to find this scrawled on the gate of my house. I think that was my main ambition for a long time. The question, of course, is what constitutes kind. The old “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” or “give a woman food/teach her how to farm” dichotomies are too simple. Of course we should teach fishing and farming, but the person still has to stay alive until the fish and the crops arrive. And what if there is no river or available farm land? What if the river is polluted and the woman works all day and still doesn’t have enough money for food or time for farming?  What if her needs are also emotional or psychological or she seems unable to learn? What if he wants steak rather than fish, like so many Americans? The social inequities (a.k.a. the greed, self-interested hoarding, and systematic class maintenance of the “haves”) at the root of poverty can’t be easily fixed with a bit of charity here and there. But nor can charity be denied because we disapprove of the people who need it or the way they use our help or charity itself. Or because it requires commitment not afterthought. And before you say anything about bootstraps, show me one single person who pulled themselves up by them and ask who gave them the boots.  So. Balance.

In my case as an educator I think I have a responsibility to model and mentor social engagement broadly speaking–from voting to volunteering. As someone who has experienced poverty first-hand, I also believe it is essential to overcome the arrogance, self-satisfaction, and ignorance that accompanies many people’s efforts to share whatever wealth they are willing/able to share.  A handout delivered with condescension can be worse than no handout. But if we work with others and actually listen to what they say, they can help us to help them in whatever ways they need. Some of the other hobo signs are less charitable and indicate “soft touches” (those who will give food if one talks about God, fakes illness, tells a sad story); in short, those who can be manipulated because they are not actually engaging with the people in front of them. I strive to earn the cat symbol.

One of the things I value about my institution is the opportunities it has given me to engage in civic work, and while one should never do this work for reward, I’d be a liar if I denied that it is nice to also be recognized!

Drew Honduras Project

Amongst the things I have done at Drew since the mid-1990s is advise a student group that volunteers time and money at schools, orphanages, and homes for the hopelessly poor in Honduras and more recently, the Dominican Republic. The group was started by students and is run by students.  Check it out and please consider supporting it if you can (you can click here to make a secure donation–how’s that for easy!) 2013 Winner: Drew Center for Civic Engagement, Creative Community Award.

Center for Civic Engagement

In Fall 2016 I was lucky enough to teach a Drew Seminar on Civic Engagement (DSEM 100 – “Community Service”) designed by the Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, Amy Koritz. I am the academic advisor for the Civic Scholars in the Class of 2020, and profoundly impressed by all that they do and by their deepening understanding of what it means to be civically engaged.

The politics/ethics of volunteering

Follow this link and scroll down to “Volunteering” for a few through-provoking references.