Alexis Farmer: The real beneficiaries of community service

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 8:55pm

10:45 a.m.: “CHARLIEEEE! That’s why you ain’t got no teeth; your teeth ran away cause you talk so dang on much.” The room erupts with laughter and snickers from a group of 20 men, one woman and one child. Charlie is a frequent visitor to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit; the staff and other Capuchin guests know his charismatic personality well. The checkered floor was worn with scuff marks, and the air smelled of the stir-fry served for lunch that day. As the laughter gently subsided, more visitors trickled into the doorway, awaiting the meal provided for them.

11 a.m.: The volunteers of Capuchin Soup Kitchen are diverse in gender, race and age. I went to volunteer with Circle K on its annual day of service. I was the only native Detroiter and the only Black person of the group. Before we began serving food, we were escorted to a room where we met one of the founders of the soup kitchen. He showed us a video about the history of Capuchin and its purpose — the soup kitchen has been in Detroit since 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression when national poverty cloaked the United States.

Detroit was not immune to the social ills of the Great Depression. The friars of Capuchin Province of St. Joseph used their ministry on Mt. Elliott Street to feed those who needed a meal. Since its creation, Capuchin has expanded its programs to include substance abuse counseling, employment opportunities for people who were formerly incarcerated and an organic farm to redevelop Detroit’s food system. I chose to work with Capuchin this service day because I was familiar with Earthworks and the On the Rise Bakery, which are also Capuchin programs, but I wanted to learn more about the soup kitchen.

11:30 a.m.: At least a dozen guests have come through the lunch line since lunch began, some with faint smiles, others not making eye contact and a few with large grins. I ask each of them how they are, which seems like both the politest question to ask, but also the most trivial. For the brief 20-second interaction, how could I gauge their sense of well-being? Why would they care to share that information with me? The impersonal engagement of serving lunch made the physical lunch line that divided us more defined. I had hoped our commonalities as Black Detroiters would dilute the physical barrier of the lunch line that divided the privileged and the marginalized, but the systemic implications of classism were impossible to ignore. 

The video that the volunteers and I watched before our shift described how the need for soup kitchen in Mt. Elliott community arose. I had to think about insufficient access to food, poverty and homelessness that has plagued the Mt. Elliott community for decades, and how Capuchin is meeting a need that public policy has neglected. That video complicated my presence at Capuchin. I was able to insert myself into this space for a mere three hours and then resume my life. And the guests of Capuchin? Well, who knows? The soup kitchen and the volunteers for that meal are a small fraction of their day. We were supposed to be there to help, and yet I felt so helpless, because I knew I didn’t solve anything.

Of all the service learning organizations on campus, how many provoke a discussion about the roots of the systemic issues community-service acts as a Band-Aid for? Or a reflection about how identity impacts the service we engage in and communities we seek to serve? What message does it send when one of the University’s premier service organizations, the Detroit Partnership, does not have one member from the city of Detroit on its executive board and the majority of its service opportunities are in Detroit? Without having a personal connection with a community, how can a person work with community members in an authentic manner that actually benefits the community?

If a person does not know the landscape of a community — familiarity with the work that is being done or the specific institutional barriers that allow for community service to exist — and a person’s privileges working with a community go unchecked, how can someone avoid participating in imperialistic charity work? How can you build sustainable models of service that foster a maintainable partnership with student and community-led organizations? None of these things can happen without consistent, intentional reflection before and after the community-service activity takes place.

A space for reflection is critical, especially when so many community service organizations at the University concentrate the majority of their work in Detroit. Engaging in service work in Detroit can be a learning experience for University of Michigan students, if done correctly. But even the thought of service being a learning experience privileges education on the plight of people who have been systematically franchised. Who is community service really benefiting then?

A number of community-service organizations and social-service agencies exist in the city of Detroit. University students can support the organizations that Detroiters have initiated themselves, rather than overlapping services. More often than not, service organizations at the University receive conflated attention in their efforts to “restore” Detroit, without acknowledging or uplifting the organizations already present in the Detroit community who sustain the work that community organizations involve themselves in for brief periods of time.

As Mama Hanifa Adjuman from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network stated during a recent panel on food and racial justice, “What we welcome (are) allies; we (don’t) need white missionaries.” Students need to address their biases, privileges, perceptions and motivations before working with communities.

Presently at the University, it is far too easy for community service to become charity work, perpetuating systems of inequality instead of addressing or even acknowledging the roots of the problems. The Ginsberg Center is an example of an underutilized University resource that could alleviate problematic participation in service. My favorite aspect of Ginsberg is its monthly reflection sessions on engaging in service, and how that service intersects with social justice, social change and identity.

I would be in favor of mandating members of campus service organizations attend at least one of these sessions. The Ginsberg Center is the only space on campus that challenges students to reflect on their personal engagement with service, a great example of this being the center’s Check Yourself Community Engagement Checklist provides a fantastic framework for student organizations to structure service reflections.

Both communities in need and those providing a service can gain from community service in tangible ways if earnest reflection and genuine interaction are fostered. As active citizens and aspiring public servants, it is imperative that students interact with communities intentionally to gain civic mindfulness. When I return to work with Capuchin, I hope the volunteers and I can interact with Charlie and the other visitors of the soup kitchen in a way in which we equally contribute to and benefit from a meaningful service experience.   

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu