In response to the article titled, “Easy A for community service” by Henry Steckel, published in last week’s issue of the Bates Student, we are writing to share our perspective on community engagement at Bates College. As two seniors heavily involved with community engaged learning and research, we strongly disagree with Steckel’s idea of half-credit “community service” courses in order to incentivize community engagement and to give students an “Easy A.”
In direct contrast to Steckel’s assumption that community engagement is a simple task worthy of an “Easy A,” our countless hours of community engagement tell us otherwise. Our community engaged courses and projects have been mutually challenging and rewarding—academically, intellectually, physically, socially, mentally and emotionally. We have learned how to diffuse hostile situations between students—we have learned what to do when a white girl tells a Somali girl to “go back to Africa” and what to do when a white boy says that “all Muslims are suicide bombers.” We have been bitten, punched, concussed and we have had our hair pulled. Yet, we have also experienced the pure joy and inspiration of helping a six-year old autistic boy read for the first time, tutoring a formerly incarcerated youth to achieve his goal of staying out of the criminal justice system, mentoring a low-income teen mother to regain her daughter from the Department of Human Services, and assisting an asylum-seeking student who has been in the United States for less than a year through the college application process. Through these moments and experiences, we have learned and reflected about Lewiston and its citizens, Bates College, the concept of community engagement, and, most importantly, ourselves and our actions.
Steckel’s conceptual understandings of community service, volunteerism, philanthropy, charity, altruism and community engagement are deeply flawed. The conflation of these terms and actions pose as a disservice to community engagement at Bates College. According to the Harward Center for Community Partnerships, “Bates students, faculty and staff enact the college’s civic mission through reciprocal and sustained partnerships that connect the college and the community in mutually beneficial and transformative ways.” It is important to note the emphasis on partnerships, reciprocity, sustainability, mutuality and transformation. There is no emphasis, as there should not be, on “service,” “giving back” to Lewiston, “charity,” or boosting GPAs.
Both the missions of Bates College and the Harward Center are founded on principles of informed civic action, community engagement, and societal responsibility, all in order to cultivate a mutually reciprocal relationship with one’s community. In no way shape or form do these founding principles equate community engagement with “service” or “charity” work, which imply the need to assert one’s privilege and power over the “other.” Community engagement entails a partnership that is derived from a societal need. According to the Harward Center, “as they partner with off-campus communities to address pressing societal needs, Bates students develop the intellectual, ethical and personal skills needed for lifelong civic responsibility and purposeful work.”
If Bates were to adopt Steckel’s idea of incentivizing “community service” with course-credit, we would not be promoting the values and mission for which the institution stands. Steckel’s proposal implies that the purpose of community engagement is to participate in the honorable work of volunteering, as if Lewiston needs our “charitable ardor” in order to be saved from itself. Not only does the concept of “service” elevate our status as privileged college students, but it devalues, degrades and strips agency from the individuals of the Lewiston community. Further, claiming that we as privileged college students need to be incentivized with “Easy As” only widens this gap of privilege that Steckel so ignorantly disregards. In regard to Steckel’s notion of “accessibility,” if the purpose of community engaged partnerships is to cultivate civic responsibility and alleviate societal needs, why then would our focus—as privileged college students – be to make this work more “accessible” for ourselves? This perspective only serves to illuminate the fact that many Bates students misunderstand the concept of privilege and the issues concerning the greater Lewiston community. If Bates legitimizes this type of “service” and “volunteerism,” it only reinforces the “us v. them” divide, upholds the white savior complex, furthers the very real concept of the Bates Bubble, and upholds the status quo of the Ivory Tower.
From our four years of collaborating and interacting with individuals from the Lewiston community, we have come to learn that community engagement is a mutually beneficial partnership, for we have learned just as much, if not more, from the community and its members as they have learned from our tutoring, teaching, mentorship and research. Community engagement has truly been a privilege and humbling experience for the both of us, as it has allowed us to recognize our own privilege, power and positionality in relation to the broader structure of society. In response to Steckel’s proposal, we hope that you will take our criticism as an invitation to step back, think of the bigger picture, and question your own privilege and purpose as a Bates student within the city of Lewiston.