The Value of Community Service: Get Up and Participate in Democracy

article image
Cover Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
Learn how to get in the game with “Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport,” a comprehensive collection of more than two hundred community service opportunities and experiences. More than a simple resource guide, this unique handbook includes interviews, anecdotes, and commentary from the top folks in nonprofit and service fields and ties together the strands of volunteering, community service, and civic engagement.

It always feels good to get out and give your time and talents to causes you care about—and, now, volunteers are needed more than ever. In Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012), UC-Berkeley professor Arthur Blaustein explains that the value of volunteerism extends beyond just the warm fuzzies—it’s an essential aspect of a functional society. The book gives practical information on how to get started, plus the strong arguments for volunteering in the first place. In this excerpt from the “Value of Service” chapter, read more about the importance of learning through service. 

To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the
Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Nearly fifty years ago, when President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, he articulated a memorable and oft-quoted challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This quote signaled a new, and hopeful, direction in American political and cultural life. The country was in transition, moving away from a difficult and trying period: the pain of the Great Depression; World War II; the Korean War; the threat of mutual nuclear destruction during the height of the Cold War; and the repression and cynicism of the McCarthy period.

And Americans, young and old, responded to the call by joining the Peace Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Teacher Corps, and, soon after, the War on Poverty. It was a time of idealism, hope, and promise.

More recently, Americans responded with the same spirit and enthusiasm to other crises, such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, volunteerism has a long and honored tradition in the history of our nation. The traditions of community service and citizen participation have been at the heart of American civic culture since the nation was founded. Whether through town hall meetings, the local school board, a political party, a hospital auxiliary, or one of our innumerable other national and local organizations,

Americans have felt and acted on the need to give something back to their communities. Since the events of September 11, 2001, and in the midst of our nation’s severe economic decline, this need has become more urgent as Americans have become more introspective and more patriotic, and more anxious. Patriotism and anxiety have taken many different forms, but one thing is clear: Our concern for our country, our communities, our families, and our neighbors has become more acute, and our need to contribute more urgent.

The response to 9/11 was probably the most vivid example, with firefighters, police officers, and rescue teams leading the way. After September 11, many thousands of ordinary citizens—ironworkers, teachers, public health clinicians, professionals, businesspeople, and schoolchildren—volunteered to go to Ground Zero, or offered their support from a distance. Everything from blankets to blood, peanut butter to poetry arrived in New York City by the bale, the gallon, the barrel, and the ream. Americans didn’t wait until New Year’s Day to make resolutions; in mid-September, many resolved to be more caring and giving.

Once again, our nation is in a crisis of major proportions. The Great Recession has hit our country like a steamroller, and some economists are predicting that the present level of unemployment could continue for several years. In cities and towns across the nation, and particularly in America’s industrial heartland, factories are closing and Main Street stores are being boarded up. Families are experiencing loss of homes, health insurance, and unemployment benefits, as well as increases in bankruptcies, divorce, and substance abuse problems. Most of all, fear and anxiety are undermining family stability.

How we respond to these crises as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation is absolutely critical. One of the main purposes of this book is to help harness the compassion, energy, and concern of those who want to serve their communities in creative, constructive, and useful ways. So, if volunteering is one of those things you’ve been meaning to do all along but just haven’t gotten around to, or if you’re just curious about what’s out there, this book can help you take the next step. It is designed to help you realize that you can make a contribution to the well-being of your community. It will help to answer the why, the how, the what, and the when. Why is community service important? How can you get in touch with a group that promotes the values and goals that you believe in? What specific volunteer activities match up with your skills and experiences? When is a good time to volunteer?

Choosing One among Many Volunteer Opportunities

Each of the organizations profiled in this book has been selected because of its commitment to educational, social, economic, environmental, and community development goals. Some have been in existence for many decades; others are fairly new.

Most are national organizations, and some are local prototypes, but all have a solid track record of delivering services that are useful and meaningful. Before you select an organization to volunteer for, ask yourself a few questions:

• How much time do you want to serve?
• What kind of service fits your personality?
• What neighborhood and community do you want to work in?
• Which target population do you want to work with?
• What skills do you have to offer?
• What would you like to gain from the experience?

Historically, our greatest strength as a nation has been our willingness to be there for one another. Citizen participation is part of our birthright. As Thomas Paine put it, “The highest calling of every individual in a democratic society is that of citizen!” Accidents of nature and abstract notions of improvement do not make our communities better or healthier places in which to live and work. They get better because people like you decide that they want to make a difference.

Volunteering is not a conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican issue; caring and compassion simply help to define us as being human. Volunteering not only helps communities, but it also helps individual volunteers to integrate their own idealism and realism in a healthy way. An idealist without a healthy dose of realism tends to become a naive romantic. A realist without ideals tends to become a cynic. Community service helps you put your ideals to work in a comprehensive approach to complex problems.

I’ve seen it happen time and again with my students, and with VISTA and AmeriCorps volunteers. Volunteering is very much a two-way street. It is about giving and receiving, and the receiving can be nourishing for the heart and mind. The very act of serving taps into a wellspring of empathy and generosity that is both personally gratifying and energizing.

Again and again, former volunteers describe their experiences with words like these: adventure, growth, human connection, exciting, spiritual, maturing, learning, and enjoyable.

Volunteering Stories

I have seen this in action firsthand for the past ten years, since I decided to give the students in each of my classes, mostly university seniors, the choice between a mid-semester exam or sixteen hours of community service. The students unanimously chose service, though most of them didn’t know what was in store for them. They had a choice of over eighty different activities organized by the Public Service Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here’s what one student wrote about this experience:

Before I started volunteering, I had very different expectations about the afterschool program. I thought it would be very sports-oriented with little academic emphasis. Luckily, my expectations proved false. The program—for fourth- and fifthgraders at the Thousand Oaks/Franklin Elementary School—has a set schedule for each grade. The students rotate between free play, sports, library study time, circle time, and arts and crafts. It was in the library that I saw how truly behind these children are in mathematics, reading, and grammar. In addition, I never expected to see the immense poverty that these children experience, or to be so emotionally affected by it. Last week I learned that one of my favorite children is homeless. It seems so silly to be reprimanding him for not doing his homework and not putting in the effort at school. This seems so trivial compared to the real-life horrors that he must experience. Although I had my expectations, never did I anticipate the emotional attachment that I now share with these children. I find myself yearning to become a teacher, which was a career I never thought about before this program. I know that as these children grow, they will probably forget about me; but I know I will never forget them. I have truly changed and matured as a result of working with them. 

A second student wrote:

Before I started tutoring I was really scared, because I didn’t know what tutors did in junior high schools. I was afraid of not being able to explain things so that kids could understand. 

I thought I might lose patience quickly with kids who were slower in understanding, and for whom I would have to repeatedly state the same thing. I was concerned that the kids would resent me or not respect me because I wasn’t the teacher and was closer to their age. And finally, I thought they wouldn’t like me; the first day I even had trouble introducing myself because of this initial uncertainty. 

Contrary to these preliminary fears, however, tutoring at Willard has been a life-changing experience for me. I’ve found that I have more patience working with kids than I’ve ever had in any other area of my life. I work hard to come up with lots of examples when the kids I’m working with don’t understand. We relate well to one another because they know that I’m there to help them. It’s been the joy of my semester to work with these students, who I really appreciate. 

These comments were typical of the experiences of nearly all the students. Their testimony is consistent with the more formal academic research and evaluations, which tell us that service learning clearly enriches and enhances the individual volunteer in multiple ways.

The Benefits of Service Learning

At the university level we know that service-learning contributes to a student’s critical thinking skills, creative imagination, and moral intelligence. And for the past fifteen years there has also been a substantial body of research with respect to the impact of service-learning in K–12 schools—primarily in the tenth and eleventh grades.

What better way for students to understand early on the connection between ideas and behavior, between the values and ideals that people hold and the ethical consequences of those beliefs, than integrating civics, American history, and social studies with quality service-learning.

Recent studies in K–12 schools across the country have demonstrated that:

• Service-learning has a positive effect on the personal development of young people.
• Students who participate in service-learning are less likely to engage in “risk” behaviors.
• Service-learning helps develop students’ sense of civic and social responsibility and their citizenship skills.
• Service-learning helps students acquire academic skills and knowledge.
• Students who participate in service-learning are more engaged in their studies and more motivated to learn.
• Service-learning helps students to become more knowledgeable and realistic about careers.
• Service-learning results in greater mutual respect between teachers and students, as well as improving the overall school climate.

It’s interesting to observe that students today are responding the way I did during my own community service forty-five years ago, when I taught in Harlem during the early years of the War on Poverty and VISTA.

Just as I experienced, my students now confront the complexities of the everyday worlds of individuals and communities quite different from their own. They are forced to deal with difficult social and economic realities. It’s an eyeopener to learn about the inequities and injustices of our society, to see firsthand the painful struggles of children who do not have the educational, social, or economic opportunities that we take for granted. This experience is humbling. It broke down my insularity, for which I’m truly grateful. Margaret Mead called this “heart-learning.”

Community service also taught me an important lesson about our society: Ethical values and healthy communities are not inherited; they are either re-created through action by each generation, or they are not. That is what makes AmeriCorps, VISTA, and other forms of community service unique and valuable. They help us to regenerate our best values and principles as individuals and as a society.

Passing along Civic Virtue

From Plato to the present, civic virtue has been at the core of civilized behavior. My experience as a teacher and with service learning has taught me that moral and ethical values cannot survive from one generation to the next if the only preservatives are academic texts or research studies. Real-life experience is the crucible for shaping values. Out of it develops an intuition and a living memory that are the seeds of a humane and just society.

The task of passing along to the young our best civic traditions has been made more difficult in the past thirty years by the steady shift of emphasis away from qualitative values (civility, cooperation, and the public interest) to quantitative ones (competition, making it, and privatism), as well as the demoralizing pursuit of mindless consumerism and trivia force-fed to us by the mass media. Just about every parent and teacher I know has, in one way or another, expressed the concern that they cannot compete with the marketing techniques of the mass media, particularly television. They are worried about the potential consequences of the growing acquisitiveness, indulgence, and self-centeredness of children. I hear this from conservatives, liberals, and moderates. Small wonder. The average eighteen-year-old in the United States has seen more than 380,000 television commercials. We haven’t begun to comprehend the inherent brutality of this media saturation on our children’s psyches.

Materialism and assumptions of entitlement breed boredom, cynicism, drug abuse, and crime for kicks. Passivity, isolation, and depression come with television and online addiction. Ignorance, fear, and prejudice come from insularity and exclusivity. A national and local effort to promote community service by young people is the best antidote to these social ills. It’s also important for parents to volunteer, because in the same way children develop good reading habits, they learn from the examples set forth by adults.

I have devoted a good deal of space to why it’s important for young people, as well as their parents, to volunteer and participate in the civic life of their communities. Now I’d like to focus on the role of the not-so-young: seniors, boomers, and pre-boomers who are retired, semiretired, or thinking of retiring. I’ll do so by sharing a story told to me by the late senator Jack Gordon, an old friend and former president pro-tem of the Florida Senate. Jack was an outstanding legislator and had an inquiring mind. He thought that there was a meaningful interrelationship between the health and well-being of seniors—an important constituency—and their active participation in the life of their community. So, one day he decided to launch a pilot project to test this hypothesis, helping to raise the money needed for this unique undertaking. Miami Beach was part of his district, and he knew that many of the retirees who resided there were musicians. They were “snowbirds,” like many other residents, who came from northern climates to vacation in the winter and eventually decided to live there permanently. He put a call out, and they responded—cellists, oboists, cymbalists, pianists, trumpeters, drummers, flutists, and what have you—from the symphonies, philharmonics, orchestras, and ensembles of Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and beyond. They practiced and practiced and then performed at free public concerts. There was one caveat, however; each individual had to do a before and after—to record the number of times they visited their doctors, and how much medication they took before they participated, and then keep a weekly record after they began rehearsing and performing. The results bore out Gordon’s hunch. Astoundingly, the number of doctor visits was reduced by 70 percent, and the amount of medication was reduced by 64 percent. A word to the wise is sufficient. My advice to all retirees is simple: Keep active, and do so with the kind of rewarding efforts that make you feel needed and useful.

You don’t have to volunteer more than a few hours a week. If you’re an architect, work with Habitat for Humanity; an accountant, help low-income people with their income taxes; a teacher, work with disadvantaged kids in a reading program or a literacy program for immigrants; a dentist, doctor, nurse, or psychologist, volunteer at a community health center. (When my own dentist announced his retirement, he also told me that he was going to volunteer two days a week at a clinic for migrant workers.) You can figure out what makes sense for you. Keep in mind that it will be good for your health and vitality. Stay young at heart!

Finding Purpose in Service: The Lorax Meaning

In summary, the goals of service are inclusive and nourishing; they seek to honor diversity, protect the environment, and enrich our nation’s educational, social, and economic policies so that they enhance human dignity. On a personal level, volunteering—the very act of caring and doing—makes a substantial difference in our individual lives because it nourishes the moral intelligence required for critical judgment and mature behavior. Dr. Seuss reminded us in The Lorax that nothing is going to get better unless someone like you cares enough to pitch in and make it happen.

As you may recall, the main characters in this tale are the Once-ler, a faceless character who makes garments from beautiful Trufulla trees, and the wise Lorax, who warns the Once-ler that the forest and its fantastical inhabitants are being harmed by his business.

Still, the Once-ler continues to chop down the forest’s trees and starts a factory to increase volume. The trees quickly disappear and the factory’s operations pollute the air and water, hurting the forest’s animals. Soon enough, everything is bare. The Lorax disappears, leaving behind a pile of rocks bearing the word “unless.” The story concludes with the Once-ler handing a Trufulla Tree seed to a young boy, who now has the potential to re-grow the forest.

Throughout our history we have responded to crises with introspection, generosity, and caring. Now is not the time to push the snooze button and be complacent. Just as we mobilized our capacities to confront hardship in the past, we must take action and confront our present economic and social problems. In the real world, we know that taking ordinary initiatives can make a difference. It is within our power to move beyond this economic crisis and to create new opportunities. What it comes down to is assuming personal responsibility. If we decide to become involved in voluntary efforts, we can restore idealism, realism, responsiveness, and vitality to our institutions and communities.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport by Arthur Blaustein, published Skyhorse Publishing, 2012. 

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.