Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When it comes to Service Learning, Don't Forget the Basics

You have to learn to walk before you can run. We all know that, but when it comes to the world of service, especially as it increasingly becomes a fixture in many schools and churches, we don't apply this basic principle very well. As I take time to reflect on the past year's activities and turn attention to what's next, I am mindful of this tenet as well as how often it is overlooked in service work.

People who want to make a difference in the world often want to have a deep, meaningful relationship with people "in need".  The reality is that expecting to do this for a short period of time is not only difficult but also problematic and raises ethical concerns. It can replicate patterns of abandonment that many people already experience. And when people doing service say "I know I am getting more out of this than the people I am serving", this is not a good thing - unless the follow-up statement is "I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to correct this imbalance."

One of the ways to address this, from the outset, is to make sure that before people are sent out to do service work, they have some basic skills. These skills include listening to others as well as to their own anxieties, being patient, learning to connect with people as people, not as a group with presumed needs based on material conditions that only materialism can correct. These relationship skills are further enhanced when we learn to appreciate the inherent wisdom that all people have from their life experiences, and when we can connect at this level  - with our hearts - truly amazing this can happen. The real wonder of this work is when we realize our gift is not to fix a problem, but to simply be in fellowship, let a relationship form, and realize we serve something greater than ourselves - a more just world - when we do this well. But sometimes, when we do this work well, what can arise is the need to fix something. The question is, are service participants equipped with the skills to do this, or has room been made to learn this?

What skills am I referring to:
  • hammering a nail into a piece of wood
  • using a saw to cut wood
  • be able to paint a wall neatly and clean a brush
  • use a lawn mower
  • cook a meal
These are pretty basic, but often lacking. And yet, when we are engaging with people on fixed
incomes, they can be the most essential skills we can have. Without these, often I have found that well-meaning people want to be of service but need to learn these basics. In addition, while being engaged in using these in the service, real conversations can unfold where we really come together. This does not mean that all service has to be this kind of service but, for me, not having these is akin to wanting to hear a person but not willing to listen. Furthermore, when we go out in the name of service without these skills, we can end up doing more harm than good, especially if it is a short-lived service program ("short-lived" can actually be a lengthy period of time - weeks, even months). If we think our gift is merely our presence, but we are not going to be around for long, we perpetuate cycles of abandonment while stroking our own egos. It is absolutely the wrong way to go. And if we are engaging in activities that require these skills and we don't have them, we can do messy jobs, waste materials, or even cause physical hurt.

When we know that our service is to help make a room brighter (painting), or a lawn better (mowing), we have much more realistic expectations of ourselves and our capacities. This past summer, we had two students from a DC private school who learned some of these basics (as well as how to get around on the Metro, opening up a "whole new world", as one student put it). They also affirmed for us at William Penn House that we need to be teaching these more as we require students to do service.  My hope is that, this coming year, we can work closer with groups to develop these both before they come to us or, before we go out to serve, we learn some of these.

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