My Catholic High School had a yearly “community service” requirement: 20 hours, 10 in school, and 10 out of school. Even before this, I’d done “service” in middle school and spent many summers volunteering at a local preschool/summer camp. During these summers, I racked up close to a hundred “volunteer hours.” I remember the satisfaction of coming to school in the fall with a note signed by my boss attesting to this time spent “in the community.” In high school, the acts that I thought of as service were uncomplicated. I made cards for the Sisters who lived in the convent next door, organized school fundraisers, and ran charity 5ks. Once I had my community service form signed off, I didn’t give these individual acts another thought.
During my Sophomore year, I became pretty involved in climate change activism. I went to protests, did lots of research, and fought the administration for eco-friendly changes on campus. It became a part of my personality – I was the vegetarian that got on the loudspeaker every day at lunch to remind girls to recycle and carry their own silverware. But despite the passion I had for this work and the amount of energy I put into it, it did not fit my definition of service. There was nobody to sign off on my community service form, and whether I realized it at the time, this drilled in a message that is so often inculcated into high school students, especially in Catholic institutions: that charity which yields tangible results is more important than advocacy or more abstract kinds of community work. I came to believe that service was only meaningful when you had something to show for it, be it funds raised or that sought-after signature on a service form.
Before applying to college, I assumed that my hundreds of community service hours would make me stand out to the schools of my choice. However, when I began to fill out applications during my senior year, I wound up leaving most of the “service” I had done out. I felt silly listing my time spent giving tours of my high school campus to upper-class Long Island families as service. For the first time, I became disillusioned with the ideas of charity and service that had been presented to me thus far.
If college applications started my questioning of charity, they also began to affirm in my mind the importance of advocacy. I found that while my “service” didn’t seem important enough to include in applications, my climate change research and activism formed the backbone of each of my college essays, supplements, and interviews. For me, my advocacy work was just as fulfilling, if not more so, than the charity I had been involved in; however, I didn’t at the time have the language of social justice to talk about this with others.
Flash forward to the fall of 2021, I started CBL with the Worcester Public Schools (WPS) Transition Program for Professor Ryan and Professor Jenkins’ Montserrat, Identity, Diversity, and Community. I immediately fell in love with the program, which seeks to help young adults with intellectual disabilities develop skills for life after high school, and form close friendships with students. Our first CBL reflection in this class was about “Toxic Charity.” This reflection centers on the idea that often there are unintended consequences of well-meaning charity that arise when the volunteer assumes a position of superiority (whether conscious or not) over those that they are meant to be serving. Rather than uniting people, this approach to service is divisive and has a tendency to alienate those receiving service. For the first time, I saw the dissatisfaction I had with my high school notion of service articulated.
In class, we learned about the Jesuit mission of being a person “with others.” This resonated with me more and more as I participated in the community in ways that didn’t yield the concrete results or satisfying log of service hours that characterized my high school experience. Each week I visited WPS Transition led to new revelations about what it means to serve in the community. I went from leaving my site frustrated that I hadn’t been able to help the students more, to realizing that the best way I could help was by being a peer and a friend, not by being the “helpful volunteer” that I had long strived to be. In this way, CBL helped me to finally dismantle the toxic charity mindset that had been instilled in me throughout my years of CCD and Catholic education.
Now, a year after this pivotal lesson, I’ve been tasked with leading reflections as a CBL intern. I do this task with enthusiasm, as I’ve seen firsthand how transformative conversations about these topics can be.