This past Sunday in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote a column called “The State of the Union is Comatose”. He cited historian Alan Brinkley’s observation “that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress — and therefore government as a whole — has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education.” This statement really jarred me, and has me thinking that it’s not just government that has failed to deal with any major national problem in a proactive manner, its our whole society.
I have been spending the past few months working with colleagues at William Penn House and Washington Quaker Workcamps on ways to move Workcamps into the 21st century. In doing this, I have been doing some reading about the history of Quaker Workcamps and Service Learning. The origins of both of these can be traced back to the early 1900’s, and both grew out of the pacifist movement. At the time, given the new technologies of transportation and communication (as well as of warfare), they were very innovative. But now, a century later we continue to experience wars, environmental and economic violence and injustice that include poverty, hunger, homelessness, and preventable disease.
At the same time, I have been continuing my efforts to being a part of stopping the spread of HIV. This week has been interesting on this front as well. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last week about the pace of funding for HIV-treatment in Africa is falling far behind the needs. In Illinois, the word has come down that prevention programs are being eliminated so that current dollars can be allocated to treatment programs. I have continued to be a part of a consulting group for the CDC and NIH to develop protocols for community-wide test-and-treat of HIV, and continue to be amazed at the slow pace of implementation as HIV enters, ironically, its 4th decade as well. Meanwhile, waiting lists are starting to emerge for treatment.
Meanwhile, the earthquake in Haiti has awakened the general public to the fact that there is this poor nation with a history of corruption and neglect in our hemisphere of the world. As we have seen with tsunamis, AIDS, and hurricanes, these events are not what seem to shock us, but the devastation these things have on the poor that really wake us up. In general, this is where Workcamps and many Service Learning programs, as well as faith –based mission trips, tend to go – places where the devastation is clear, and there are some quick fixes that require short-term sacrifices, but not transformative changes in how one lives his/her life. They have the potential to ingrain in people that we should always be chasing the devastation, not doing the hard work to minimize the harm of the next one – whether it is disease prevention, or addressing the despair and injustices that are the fertile ground for natural and man-made disasters to do their worst.
The big question I have with all of this rattling around the brain is: when was the last time social services/social justice movements have tackled anything new or tackled things in new, innovative ways. We for the most part have become a society that works at the margins – we will rise somewhat to the occasion when people have been devastated by a disaster, and we will advocate/blame the government for doing the rest (such as not giving enough money). These are just tweaking the societal system that needs a major overhaul. If ever there were a wake-up call for community action that is responsibility-driven, it is now. But I think the harsh reality is that social services has become an industrial complex as much as the military has, and we have become too complacent and dependent on these institutions to do our work. How else to explain that people cannot fathom spending $10 for an HIV-test as part of a “greater good” effort.
No doubt that technological advances have carried their weight. We have cars that are lighter, get more miles per gallon than ever. We have communication systems that make connecting easier than ever. We have had advances in medical testing and treatment. Unfortunately we often use these technologies to make our life easier and more of the same. When was the last time you heard someone talk about how their hybrid car has made them more conscious about driving, and they are actually driving less and walking more?
Another reality is that I am not sure Workcamps/Service Learning has had a new, innovative idea to breaking the cycles of violence and injustice. But with a century of being under our belts, perhaps it’s time; in fact, there is no better time than now. We have the means to connect with others, to share ideas, and to have voices heard far more than ever before. I know that here at William Penn House, and in conversations with folks in the community, we have started to really consider what this might look like, including that service is much more than physical labor; it’s community-building in a way that the health of the community comes before the needs of the individual, and is accomplished with community members as equal partners, not volunteers/recipients.
I can say the same for HIV/AIDS services: outside of technological advances, when was the last innovative thing created? The same funding boxes for the most part are there, and there is an institutional rigidity to maintain turf. But with the cuts in prevention, all of a sudden we in the community are going to need to step up. AIDS organizations will inevitably say we need to advocate for more dollars: I’m not so sure. I think we need to stop advocating so much, and start doing more. I also think that some of the basic testimonies of Quakerism can help lead the way, if we can only get the institutions out of our way.