By Shimshon Stüart Siegel, with Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, Impact Boston, Brandeis University
In the community service field, slogans such as “help those less fortunate than you,” “make a difference in someone’s life,” or “change the world!” are often seen and heard. However, this emphasis on change as the direct result of volunteering can be problematic for all parties involved – the volunteer, the recipient of the service, and those organizing the service project. Ideally, service does not reaffirm classic societal inequalities, but rather brings together people with different ethnic backgrounds, levels of socioeconomic status, and ability levels to create positive change. Emphasizing personal relationships as the core goal of service can achieve this objective. Teen participants in Impact Boston at Brandeis University, a summer service-learning program, are encouraged to seek points of human connection with service recipients at their nonprofit service sites and not to focus as much on “fixing” society’s challenges in such a short period of time. Several beliefs fuel this philosophy, including the notion that it is harder to ignore the struggles of people with whom we feel a personal connection.
In the community service field, slogans such as “help those less fortunate than you,” “make a difference in someone’s life,” or “change the world!” are often seen and heard. This emphasis on change as the direct result of volunteering can be problematic:
- A lack of tangible “results” may discourage volunteers from engaging in future service work, even if their work did, in fact, positively affect the recipients in ways that they cannot yet gauge.
- The mentality of change leads to an emphasis on projects that are “sexy” and exciting for the volunteers; for instance, building a house feels more important than stuffing envelopes as part of a fundraising campaign.
- Even with the best of intentions, there is the risk of having prejudiced stereotypes reinforced. White, college-educated people are the most likely to volunteer, while much of the work is done in low-income or minority communities or with people who have limitations on their ability. This reinforces a societal imbalance, the notion that certain types of people in society are the givers and others are the receivers.
Since 2009, Impact Boston has been experimenting with creating service-learning activities that approach service from a different perspective. Impact Boston is a two-week residential service learning program for Jewish teens, created as a partnership between BBYO and Brandeis University. Its fundamental starting point is that personal relationships between volunteers and people served by the nonprofit service sites are at the core of effective service. Societal change comes as the result of changes in people’s attitudes toward injustice and human suffering – and the realization that behind these concepts are real people who are experiencing daily struggles in their lives. This philosophy is realized through experiences that place relationships as the primary goal, the foundation on which service projects – whether building, cleaning, planting, or just conversing – are based.
Impact Boston’s model is informed by several beliefs. First, teens love the opportunity to engage socially. Their natural inclination is to seek interactions with people who are similar to them or who have some sort of obvious appeal. However, when given a supportive framework, they can rise to the challenge of connecting with people different from themselves – people who, in other circumstances, they may have avoided or about whom they may have indulged in negative stereotypes.
When given the chance to engage with people different from themselves in a safe, supportive environment, teens are quick to notice, as perceived differences fall aside, that they are able relate to them as people, rather than as objects of service. One teen who worked at a residence for senior citizens said that he was surprised “how close I became with such different people in such a short amount of time. I feel like I made a true friend with someone who has 60 plus years on me, and it makes me very happy that I can say that this is the case.”
Second, interactions with people who are currently receiving social services provide an unparalleled “primary source” for deep learning. A teen working with Spare Change News, a paper written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people, said that she benefited from “learning about homelessness through a homeless person’s eyes instead of just hearing facts. Physical learning instead of virtual learning.” A teen working with people with developmental disabilities remarked, “I just never realized how much they could accomplish… They inspire others to achieve their goals everyday because that’s what they do–strive to accomplish their goals and make their lives better every day.”
Third, if people were connected more directly to the stories and struggles of others, we would have a more aware and caring society. It is all too easy to dismiss “the homeless” or to assume that people with a developmental disability are “taken care of” and then not give much thought to the true challenges faced by these people. Teens spending significant time interacting with such people come away with a new attitude: “Having to socialize with the women at [the women’s drop-in center] was such a reach out of my comfort zone that now I feel as though I can go home and be more open and outgoing with people in my own community.”
The value of the service-learning experience is not just what happens on site, but what new perspectives the participants take with them. Ideally they leave the program with a better understanding of how to approach service throughout their lives.
As Impact Boston’s implementation of a relationship-based approach has evolved, the program has witnessed increasing success, both in the quality of the experience teens have and the desire of nonprofits to partner with the program. Clearly, service projects developed under this model must be constantly evaluated and assessed to ensure authenticity and mutuality of benefit and to protect against the exploitation of any of the parties involved (as must all service projects). Broader implementation, accompanied by rigorous assessment, is needed to fully understand what this approach to service contributes to the field. It must be noted that this approach is not meant to devalue the importance of service that does not involve face-to-face encounters, such as organizing food pantries or raising money for a cause. To the contrary, it promotes an attitude toward societal issues that will, ideally, add meaning and authenticity to all volunteer efforts.
 This statement is supported by data from, among others, the U.S. Department of Labor’s January 26, 2011, news release, “Volunteering in the United States—2010,” retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.htm.
 All quotations are from an end-of-program survey given to teen participants of Impact Boston 2011.