Looking past community service

U of C students should go beyond volunteering to fully understand our neighbors.

By Thalia Gigerenzer

In a women’s shelter in Englewood, a crime-infested neighborhood of broken homes, we are writing poems about Chicago. We drive to the shelter every Tuesday, three University of Chicago students, hurtling past dilapidated storefronts, fliers pinned to lampposts that say “Who Killed Killah? $5,000 Reward” and a store advertising “Tombstones Made While You Wait!” We speed nervously, excitedly away from the bubble of Hyde Park. We call it “community service,” a weekly creative writing group that allows the women to step back from their practical worries and reflect—but for me, it is mostly an encounter between foreign worlds.

Today’s prompt is to write about Chicago; I am ready. For a while now, I have had snippets of this poem floating in my head—images of a tired woman standing at the Red Line stop, heaving in the heat, her janitor’s uniform stained and dirty; the skinny man with the hollow eyes weaving in between cars, wiping windshields; the bright neon-red Wendy’s sign shrill against the blue-black sky, illuminating hooded figures huddled in the streets. This is the Chicago I see in the shelter; this is the Chicago I know the women will write about.

We go around in a circle, starting with Sharon (whose sole request of us has been to bring her “anything by Nietzsche”), who reads a lyrical poem about her memories growing up in the meatpacking district; it is reverent and affectionate. Then the other women read their poems, their faces glowing as they praise this city of hope and grit. I don’t understand. As my teaching partner reads a poem about ice-skating and the beauty of the leaves in the fall, I think, well, perhaps her innocence can be excused.

Before I know it, it’s my turn—nervously, I read my poem: Chicago, I have slept on your streets under your glossy skyscrapers, you shoot your young, you dazzle your lovers, you cruel, cruel city (and so on). I look up and am met with a mixture of indignation and amusement, as wide-eyed women ages 20 to 60 stare me down. “My god!” Sharon says. “Don’t you go talking about my city like that!” I try to defend myself, saying that there are many things I like about Chicago, of course, and did they notice the part about the lovers? But to no avail; these women, who have lived through so much in this city, will not let anyone taint the dignity of their city, their Chicago.

On the drive back (I swear I detect a subtle exhalation of breath in the car as we enter Hyde Park), I realize that my sympathy, which I am all too ready to give, has distorted my vision. And that maybe I should let the women tell their stories before I tell theirs. That is the problem with community service—it provides a poor setting for really getting to know people whose lives are totally different from yours. And yet, paradoxically, it is one of the only ways for students to forge connections with the community that surrounds them. But while a once-a-week tutoring job may give you an intimate glimpse into a person’s life, it is at best fleeting and taken out of context, encouraging stereotypes such as the ones I made, and continue to make, about Englewood and the shelter. Community service is poorly equipped to deal with the real task facing America’s increasingly economically and racially segregated cities: getting to know your neighbors.

I do not mean to denigrate community service, which I believe is both noble and crucial today—and creative writing and other arts and educational programs are among the most innovative and enriching programs out there. Rather, I mean to say that it is not enough. Getting to know your community is just as important as the duty to serve your community, which is why we need to move beyond community service. Furthermore, we need to think about why we do community service in the first place—it has become so self-evident and unquestionable that people seem to do it without thinking why. Are we doing it to boost our résumés, out of voyeuristic curiosity, or because we truly want to help? That same lack of introspection seems to be why many people don’t think about going beyond community service, and believe that our relationship with the community can and should stop there.

As students of the University of Chicago, we need to venture south of the Midway, not as self-proclaimed saviors, not even as activists fighting for the community, but as everyday people. The goal should not be—and cannot be—the total understanding of the other person. Rather, we should try to get to know one another as individuals outside of the often-patronizing relationship of community service.

On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I remember walking through the streets of Hyde Park, foolishly thinking that, in the euphoria of the moment, all barriers of race and economic status had temporarily fallen. I stepped outside a neighborhood celebration to interview an African-American homeless woman. I asked her how she was feeling on this historic day and she gave me a weary look and said: “Ain’t gonna make no difference.” Taken aback both by her response and my naiveté, I thrust a wad of bills into her outstretched hand and mumbled, “Thank you.” Next time, I will let her speak first.

Thalia Gigerenzer is a fourth-year in the College majoring in international studies and South Asian Language and Civilizations.