When I was 12, I wanted to save the world. It seemed the natural career path, having already lost interest in growing up to be a marine biologist, mime or astronaut. Though I knew it was idealistic, it didn’t seem such an unreasonable aim at the time. I was a bright kid in one of those fancy, upper-middle class public schools with dedicated teachers who told me I could do anything if I put my mind to it. Photos of starving people halfway across the world upset me; I figured that I could volunteer my time and donate my money, without too much inconvenience to myself, and really get started on saving the world.
These days, I fight the urge to roll my eyes at the inordinate praise heaped on well-intentioned service groups like The Detroit Project and Dance Marathon. I cringe when I read articles headlines like Detroit Project sweeps away urban blight (04/03/2006). If the complex problems Detroit faces could be summed up as “urban blight” and could be “swept away” by 1,000 college students willing to pick up trash on one Saturday, don’t you think we would have taken care of that already?
I’m still sorting out why I feel such unease with Dance Marathon. It is annoying, of course, to receive constant e-mails imploring me to do my Saturday-night drinking at this bar night or that as a way to get plastered for a good cause. But I suspect it’s more the fanfare and constant back-patting to keep up morale that gets to me. There’s the hierarchy of arbitrary positions and posts to keep people motivated and distract them from the fact that at the end of the day, they spend an entire year putting on a show to convince individuals and businesses to donate money. At the end of the day, $300,000 will help, but was gathering it in such a roundabout manner really the best use of everyone’s time?
My own desire to somehow save all the poor, sick and dying people around the world, to rescue them from the hell in which they certainly must live, didn’t fade away on its own. First realizing that my life was pretty privileged brought with it a lot of guilt, and it still does sometimes. But my initial reaction – to make up for things by helping out at soup kitchens when I had time, by “giving up” a whole week of my life each year to go fix up houses in the mountains – missed the point.
It took a few of those weeklong service trips to beat that notion out of my head. The biggest blow came when the culmination of one week spent trying to help build a wheelchair ramp was no more than a dozen three-foot-deep holes and a broken sewer line. I was not a construction worker; the time it took to show me how to properly wield a hammer could have been more effectively spent actually building things. Working my part-time job for a week and donating the money would have probably done more in the sense of tangible benefit, though I wouldn’t have gotten a nifty T-shirt.
But that warm, fuzzy feeling we get from volunteering is intoxicating. It does feel good to do something – and to know that digging ditches in Kentucky was more helpful than getting drunk in Cancun. Combine it with this sense of one’s own privilege, that the time and money needed to volunteer is a luxury not all have, and you’ve got the perfect conditions for a whole lot of self-congratulation.
Does that mean we shouldn’t do what we can, that we should just worry about ourselves? Of course not. But just as it’s dangerous to let ourselves shirk away from the pain we feel when we recognize how fortunate we are, it’s important to be careful of that feeling bordering on condescension that regards those less wealthy than us as helpless and in dire need of a day or a week of our precious time.
I’m not saying Dance Marathon and DP Day are not worthy pursuits – at the very least, the scale of these projects draw in people and groups who might not otherwise get involved. But I was relieved to read the letter in the Daily yesterday (Daily coverage of DP Day misleading on many levels) revealing that DP leadership does try to contextualize DP Day as a time to bring together members of different communities, not for University students to “fix” Detroit.
The changes necessary to remedy society’s inequalities and injustices go beyond a lack of volunteers. It will take alliances between organizations and communities, not a bunch of well-meaning college students, to bring about a significant change. I can raise money, try to educate others, head off on service trips and learn about issues I might not encounter otherwise. But it takes a fair assessment of the impact, both positive and negative, that volunteers have on the communities and individuals to fully understand what service means and what it can do.
Whether a relief or a burden, it’s not our place to save the world.
Beam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.