Does community service really change anything?
Our group of teens discovered the answer is complex.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.