Opinion

Does community service really change anything?

Our group of teens discovered the answer is complex.

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Dust swirled as we trudged through the littered, stifling streets of Dharavi, in Mumbai, India. Climbing a ladder to the windowless room that a family of six calls home, I thought: What does this impoverished community really get from our school's efforts at community service?

What long-term benefit does any underserved community truly derive from Phillips Academy's – or any other organization's – outreach efforts? What differentiates well-intended programs to encourage global citizenship from those that seem more like "cultural tourism," and resume-building for high schoolers?

Phillips Academy high school students and faculty were toiling for Niswarth, a program where students go to Mumbai ( Bombay) for three weeks to study urban development and serve in one of Asia's poorest areas. Niswarth is the Hindi translation of Philips' motto non sibi or "not for self." This year, Phillips' students, partnered with Indian high schoolers and two nongovernmental organizations, were challenged to create a one-day project for this specific community. They were invited into shanties to practice the complex skill of observing without judgment. Everyone looks poor – but what is poverty? What are the root causes for almost 10 million people in Mumbai living in these conditions? What are the crucial social issues?

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The answers to those questions are complex. And listening was crucial for participants. Students learned that residents were bulldozed out of their homes and moved to 225-sq.-ft. apartments in another part of the city. We went door to door, helping with an ongoing census and heard: "There is no school nearby." "We need to take three trains to get to our jobs." "We get clean water in our homes for only 20 minutes every three days." "We don't trust our neighbors here…."

Drawing on our studies on resource-poor communities and conversing with local students, we decided to address the need for clean water. Learning that India's new Right to Information Act mandates a timely response to citizen requests, and undeterred by India's infamous bureaucracy, students drafted a petition, got every resident of the seven-story building to sign it, and submitted it.

We also began cleaning the building using monsoon rainwater. Within 30 minutes into our effort, curiosity drew residents to see what our odd, intergenerational American/Indian group was doing.

Residents helped scrub, saying: "If you care about our living conditions we should take similar responsibility." Men, who rarely engaged in cleaning, participated by developing a pulley system to bring water buckets upstairs. Seeing this, residents of the adjacent building tackled their own hallways.

Spurred by our petition, the local warden informed over 25,000 residents that their home access to clean water would now be eight minutes every day – a considerable improvement over the 20 minutes available every three days.

Months later, this community has moved from distrust to action, addressing the quality of schools and access to medical facilities. A fundamental, sustainable transformation appears to be taking place. For all we took home from Mumbai, we have clearly left something of value.

Indian students asked about the biggest issue facing America. The answer is not recession, global warming, or healthcare, but how to engage young people to become changemakers. We learned that it requires venturing outside comfort zones, listening to community needs, and sometimes partnering with local organizations. And that's what differentiates well-intended programs to encourage global citizenship from those that seem more like cultural tourism.

One participant said she came away from these three weeks "with a burning inspiration" to make change. Like others, she conveyed that she could no longer be content with simply standing on the sidelines.

Such reactions during this experience taught us that traditional community service is important, but has limited effect. Real results lay in understanding the larger issues, observing without judgment, practicing sophisticated empathy, and mobilizing the community to become partners in making fundamental changes are what have real effect on people's lives. And the key to raising generations of changemakers in any community means combining services with learning, or "service-learning," in the years of adolescent idealism and energy.

What we have learned about engaging a foreign people in community service is that those who become part of the process are the ones who are truly served by community service. Long-term benefits for underserved communities from outreach efforts lay in genuine partnerships that are based on mutual understanding. Students from America and residents in the slums of Mumbai were all out of their comfort zone during this program, and that is exactly the foundation that was required for real change to occur.

Raj Mundra is assistant dean of the Office of Community and Multicultural Development and an instructor in biology at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. On April 3, Phillips, Winsor School, and Harvard University will host a conference dedicated to learning about different communities through service-learning, based on programs like Niswarth.

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