Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part I)


colin-powell-center-partner-change-blood-pressure Over the course of their year, the Partners for Change Fellows supported various nonprofit organizations working to improve the state of college access and success as well as health care in the Harlem community by providing regular, weekly service. After a seminar unit on “service” in which fellows read and discussed various authors’ view points on service, several themes began to emerge.

These broad themes were discussed in their relationship to service projects and included (1) culture, (2) permanence, (3) impact, and (4) recognition. At the end of the unit, in order to tie the various themes and voices together, the fellows created a Wiki, or a collaborative webpage (accessed via Blackboard), on “service.” The Wiki allowed the Fellows to add to, modify, or even delete content that others had posted. This platform encouraged creativity and unified their thoughts into one voice. While the entire Wiki was a bit too lengthy for a blog post, I wanted to share some of the highlights in a short two-part series on Neighborhoods and Nations. Below is an excerpt in which the fellows discuss “culture” as it relates to service. (An excerpt in a future post will focus on the importance of "permanence" as it relates to service.)


An excerpt from “Culture” (Partners for Change Fellows, 4/5/2012)

Culture is able to unify a group of people and is able to bring a community together to identify them as one. Culture is also one of the most important aspects of service because it is impossible to provide service to a group unified by culture if the service provider does not understand the interactions, attitudes, and beliefs of the group. The group that is being provided with service will never accept an outsider. The outsider, or person providing the service, must integrate him or herself in the group in order to provide effective service. If one is not part of the culture, it is often difficult to fully understand the needs and relationships that the specific culture has. The integration of the service must be seamless and cannot feel as if it is a burden to the community, so complete assimilation must take place in a way that the culture is not being imposed on at all.

In Ivan Illich’s "To Hell with Good Intentions" he points out that there is a culture shock on both sides of the scale, both the person providing service and the person receiving service. When not being aware of the culture, the most Illich believes that you are able to do is disrupt a community and values. Illich also believes that if service providers are not aware of the culture that they are trying to help, then they could be pushing their views on the community who is receiving the service.


For me, the fellows’ discussion of culture’s role and connection to service illustrated their recognition of the ways in which certain phenomena can have such an impact on service. Their full discussion on “culture” was evidence of their growing acceptance and comfort with the complexities that are inherent in service. While the fellows, and myself, in no way have all the answers after this unit, I believe they were equipped with tools to think critically and ask difficult questions about service.

Their continued grappling with themes related to service, such as in the excerpt on culture here, demonstrates to me how far they’ve come since the beginning of the year, when they saw themselves as what Illich refers to as “do gooders,” to the end of the year when they were able to discuss the challenges of their individual projects. As the fellows’ Service Wiki transitions into a discussion of “permanence” and whether a service project must be permanent to make a difference, their reflections on service deepen and critical eyes are sharpened. Stay tuned! - Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors here.

Join the conversation! Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you agree with the fellows’ conclusions and why?
  • Do you have any experiences with service or cultural competence to add to the discussion?
  • What have you learned from your experiences with interacting or working with cultures that are very different from your own?
  • Have you done any reading that is particularly relevant to the conversation?

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