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Re-defining community service

Confession: In the three years I’ve been at Duke, I have spent a grand total of about one hour participating in community service. A friend had just joined some sort of club that was decorating valentines for retirees, and she didn’t want to go alone, so I tagged along. In a rush to create an impossibly large number of valentines in the tiny window in our schedule, we pieced together a few hearts with glitter and glue, then rushed on to dinner, or a meeting, or whatever it was we had that night.

Two years later, I have a hard time imagining that the 10 pieces of construction paper I folded that evening made anyone feel any better about being alone. In fact, when I imagine a room full of seniors watching as a volunteer carries in a box full of generic, spangly valentines, I get a stab of loneliness that sort of makes me wish I’d never done it at all.

But of course I should have done it. In fact, I should be doing a lot more community service, according to the Community Change newsletter I received in my mailbox this semester. Mary Ellison Baars (’05) and Alice Williamson (’05) set me straight in an essay they wrote for the biannual newsletter entitled “It’s Not About You.”

In this encouraging work (available at, Baars and Williamson sympathize with the general inability of Duke students to commit to a regular schedule of community service. “We have tests, meetings, due dates, and assignments,” they remind us. Still, we “must remember that there is a world outside of Perkins and the Bryan Center” where an extraordinary number of “people in need [are] waiting for a helping hand.”

Basically, the authors argue that Duke students feel so pressured to prove themselves—building résumés with their extracurriculars, studying for tests, etc.—that they never bother to participate in truly selfless Community Service.

Baars and Williamson aren’t alone in their beliefs. The schism that divides the realm of extracurricular activities into the mutually exclusive camps of “résumé-building” and “service-volunteerism” runs unchecked through the literature of community service and our society in general. We come to accept it only by being trained to ignore a multitude of facts.

The first convenient omission regards the nature of most “résumé-building” activities. For starters, some clubs (and all of the selective living groups on Duke’s campus) involve a philanthropic component. Even those group members who don’t directly participate manage to contribute by supporting the organizations that embrace the philanthropic components.

Of course, there are also countless student groups that don’t participate in community service. These, I suppose, are the targets of the attacks on the résumé-builders. But even these organizations provide valuable contributions to the community in some form or another, whether that means giving students a forum in which to publish their poetry or organizing a performance space for local bands on East Campus.

Still, the fact remains that these activities, whatever benefit they might incidentally provide for the community, are résumé-building, and therefore not truly altruistic. Right?

Wrong. So-called community service, like every other activity mentioned above, looks wonderful on a résumé.

Thanks largely to the kind of psychology that gives us the flawed “résumé-building” versus “service-volunteerism” argument, participation in community service helps humanize a candidate for a job or graduate school like no other activity could. Appearing selfless is a great way to help yourself.

Ultimately, then, the popular trend of pitting résumé-building against service-volunteerism fails on two principal counts. First, résumé-building activities almost always benefit the larger community. Secondly, community service activities inevitably benefit the individuals who in engage in them. In fact, the phrase ‘community service’ is something of a misnomer—we narrowly define it as an unpaid activity that reaches across socio-economic borders to benefit the unfortunate.

Really, almost all our extracurriculars provide a community service.

To distinguish our staunchly conservative view of ‘community service’ as somehow more elevated than, say, the promotion of the arts community requires an implicit ethical or spiritual judgment about the absolute value of two different kinds of service. The promoters of the old-fashioned definition of ‘community service’ have no qualms about making that judgment. That seems awfully self-righteous to me.

John Miller is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Wednesday.



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