Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on "Meaningful" Work

As I am about to end two plus years of leading a service-learning program, I am reflecting on my time here and the lessons I have learned. A common phrase I hear a lot is “meaningful work”. Pastors, youth group leaders, and parents have all use this term when they call to inquire about my programs. Over time I have found out that this is actually code for “instant grafication”.

Yesterday the phrase came up again, while reading a document on Quaker workcamps. In one section, the writers wrote that meaningful work needs to be important and effective, then they go on to give an example of how cutting back invasive species is not meaningful work.

For the past two years, I have collaborated with Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), an organization devoted to removing invasive species from the local watershed in Washington DC. From the dedicated employees of AWS, I have learned about an epic environmental disaster happening in our midst. This disaster threatens our whole eco-system, because the invasive species only support, on average, 5% of the species that native flora support and in many cases, the invasive species have been growing wild for more than a hundred years. This disaster threatens our food supply because of the way the food chain works, i.e. if insects disappear, then their predators are at risk, and so on. AWS have developed a five to seven year plan for sites of eradicating invasive species. The organization is always in need in volunteers to help with this work. In an afternoon, a group can make a tremendous amount of progress if they are part of an organized plan, like the one developed by AWS.

Instead of these types of projects, leaders want their groups to volunteer at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc… These places have a need for volunteers too, but most of the time, they are filled to the brim with volunteers, sometimes a year in advance. Adults ask for these places, because they want to get to know people in need. I can count on one hand the number of conversations I have had at soup kitchens with the clients, because when you are serving food or cleaning up after people there is not time to sit and talk. But, the volunteers leave feeling good about themselves when they go home to their own bed, because they have “helped” someone. Where is the volunteer when the client needs something to eat the next day? How many tested models are there for eradicating hunger or homelessness in five to seven years from an entire section of a city?

For the adults who ask for “meaningful” work, they are great adults who are dedicated their lives to working with youth in their community and they want to ensure a great experience for their group. In addition, groups are needed to volunteer in all areas. I try to plan workcamps that include all types of volunteering, because these issues are all connected. How can you help people out of hunger and ignore a problem that threatens our source of food? The error is calling one type “meaningful” and another “unmeaningful”. If we are unwilling to work on an issue affecting our community, then who do we expect to work on the issue?

I see in the history of Quakers as investing in long-term struggles, whether the issue was slavery, peace, suffrage, civil rights. Friends devoted their whole lives to causes that did not end in their own lifetime. Friends, generation after generation, continued working on the same issues and changing their own lives to bring about the change they advocated for. Friends today are continuing in this tradition by working on a wide range of issues. Friends Testimonies remind us to consider how our lives, individually and corporately, affects the rest of the world.
In our youth programs now, are we teaching our Young Friends about how solving problems take a long-term plan and vision or are we more interested in teaching band-aid solutions that ignore larger less glamorous issues?

-Greg Woods


Robin M. said...

One of the best things I ever read about workcamps was written by Douglas Steere, I don't know how many years ago. He said that when he was planning workcamps, he always insisted that the workday be 8 hours. People were always trying to cut it back so they could have some other element in the day, but Steere thought it was important that the campers and the people they were serving actually recognized what they were doing as work. Also, even cutting brush is fun for a little while, but it's in those last couple of hours where you really start to reflect on why you're doing this stuff that hurts, and how hard it is for people who have to do this everyday, and it all gets really real.

Mark Read said...

Hi Greg

Interesting account. I am researching a PhD at Birmingham University, UK, focussing on how Quakers articulate their identity in the workplace. I think that is the key: how Quakers see themselves, how work is meaningful to individuals' subjective identity. This is in contrast to the idea of some external hierarchy of meaningful-ness. It is probably very difficult to identify one aspect of work that is necessarily more significant than any other to us all.

It is important, it seems, to recognise that work does create pathways for faith. And in that Quaker faith is also extant in the workplace. Because Quakers believe it is.

Let me know if you want me to forward some of my research findings.


William Penn House said...

Robin- I am interested in reading Douglas Steere's writings about workcamps. Can you let me know where you read the writings?

Mark- I am interested in your research. You can contact me at gregwoodsquaker[at]gmail[dot]com