Service at Stanford: A response to the Editorial Board of The Daily

Opinion by Mina Shah
March 9, 2015, 8:57 p.m.

Last week, the editorial board of The Daily published an opinion piece on the subject of public service here at Stanford. It was a call to action directed towards both Stanford students and the institution itself.  The message is relatively simple: there need to be more spaces for public service on campus and more students doing that service.

Public service (done right) is great. More people should engage in public service. However, the editorial board’s article is problematic in many ways, and before backing such a strongly-worded imperative and persuading people to engage more with service, these problems need to be addressed.

First of all, I take issue with the article’s use of a one-dimensional definition of “public service.” The authors of the piece seem to view service only in a “direct service” capacity. Direct service includes actions such as going into communities and working person-to-person in an attempt to improve community conditions. People imagine this sort of direct service to be an addition — something extra that one does — and, by popular imagination, unpaid. More succinctly, when we first think of service, we think of volunteering.

There are, however, other forms of service, and not everyone imagines service work in the same way. For example, we can serve our communities through service in government or policy-making and implementation. Thus, something like holding a position on the Undergraduate ASSU Senate is one kind of service. Our senators serve us, the members of the Stanford undergraduate community. We can also serve our communities by conducting research that aims to inform policy in a way to lead to improvement of community health.

Activism, though more alternative, is also service of a sort. During this past year, we have seen an upsurge of student activism here on campus. Regardless of whether we agree with the stances or methods of students in activist groups, they act because they envision a better world in a brighter future. They work to serve local communities by calling attention to injustices so that we can go about fixing those injustices.

There are also plenty of professions that work to improve the health of communities or to just do some good in the world. Doctors who approach their work with kindness, and a focus on treating patients as individuals, serve. Public defenders serve, as do lawyers working to make a difference in the offices of District Attorneys. People working in government (supposedly) serve their constituents. Teachers serve their students and try to improve their communities with the benefits that come from education. Clearly, there are many more ways  to do service than to go into East Palo Alto and volunteer for an hour a week.

Secondly, the article points out that in some circles, the culture of the university feels much like a “Get-Rich U.” However, there are plenty of spaces where this is not the case. Plenty of classes fold in ideas and conversations about service. There are also plenty of classes that actually have service as part of the class syllabus. These “Service Learning” classes foster critical learning about the ethics and theory behind the specific service projects that the classes conduct. The Bing study abroad program in Cape Town is centered on this idea of service learning.

In addition to these academic opportunities, there are many extracurricular activities in which students can get involved. The Haas Center for Public Service provides avenues into service opportunities during the school year and summers through service programs, education partners, community service work study, community engaged scholarship and summer fellowship opportunities.

There are also a number of student groups on campus whose missions are distinctly service or community oriented, whether through direct service or activism. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the Amnesty International branch on campus, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, Fossil Free Stanford, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Reproductive Justice and Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Even the Greek system continually puts on philanthropy events for the charitable organizations they support. On top of this, plenty of organizations that do not necessarily have a service-oriented mission engage in service activities.

Third, the idea of blanket engagement in service is absolutely terrifying to me. I’m glad that the editorial board didn’t call for a requirement of service, because if service were to become a requirement, it could easily go from being something that people want to do to something that they have to do. Intent isn’t everything, but it certainly matters. If people start viewing service as an obligation, even if it’s not a formal one, it will also be easy to develop a savior complex. Part of what is discussed in service learning classes and Haas Center service programs is that the people doing service will get more out of that service than they could possibly give to the community being served. This adds a necessary element of humility. It is important to recognize and remember our smallness.

Suffice it to say, we don’t need more spaces for service. Some Stanford students have a sort of “founders’ complex” where we feel like we need to start things, to be the leader of a new group, a pioneer. There is something to be said, though, for a little humility and being in the background of an organization. We ought to participate in and work with what we already have, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. If we want to change the campus culture around service, we as students, as individuals, need to take the initiative and engage more. We need to bury our egos, stop pointing our fingers at the university, and actually put in some effort ourselves.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’

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