Service and Its Impact on Personal Development
How have you served lately? Those were the words spoken by my law teacher every Friday as I, along with my classmates, prepared to enjoy our much needed weekends. Usually, his inquiry was met with a silence quiet enough to make a cemetery seem like a college frat party. Of course, I would always ponder on his inquiry and providing some form of an answer was always hindered by the question: What is service and what impact does it have on my personal development? By doing acts of service, am I becoming a better person in the process? The answer to those questions was always an emphatic yes and my life, the many people I have had the chance to interact with, and stories of some of the greatest men and women to ever walk the Earth are ample evidence to support such a claim.
One of the best examples of service’s impact on my development as an individual is when I was elected President of my school’s Spanish club. I initially believed that being a member would only result in the betterment of my Spanish speaking skills or in an increase in my number of friends. However, our coordinator was quick to correct my misassumptions by stating that the club’s purpose was to serve members of the community with a hint of the Latino culture. Ironically, the former proved true as my friendship circle now included more students who had come from different places on the globe and therefore had different cultural backgrounds. What I truly did not expect was that I would also grow as an individual while serving others. Because of the Spanish club, I now had more appreciation for people that have a story that is entirely different from mine because of the ideas and values I could learn by hearing their point of views and stance on certain issues. Additionally, I learned that when a diverse group of people work together towards a common goal, more ideas are brought to table, which can expedite the process and make the results all the more enjoyable for all who contribute. The specific experience that affected me the most was when we decided to organize a Christmas banquet for members of the community who had nowhere to go for the holidays. Through hard work, we were able to organize the banquet to the delight and satisfaction of all those who were in attendance. The experience truly enabled me to put my life in perspective and made me aware of the things that I take for granted in life.
In contemporary society, the term service has come to define any products or supplies offered by governments or corporations to help those in need, in return for their money or any form of payment that satisfies all parties involved in the transaction. This paper will analyze service on a much more personal level, even at its most basic form. Its importance is growing every day and one the many ways this fact is reflected is by its subtle yet noticeable entry into many academic curriculums. “Historically, community service has been part of the activities of families, churches and service agencies in local communities, but in the last decade some educational leaders have begun to advocate for increased meaningful involvement of youth in community service as part of the educational program of schools.” (Reimer 4) However, it must be understood that these service programs should not force students, or any individual for that matter, to serve. Sure, community service can represent a valuable opportunity for one to establish essential connections with their community, but the true change happens when a deliberate and personal connection is made between all parties involved.
The reason for the aforementioned advocation lies in the fact as a society, we have become more isolated and indifferent of the different cultural components that make human interaction such as beneficial endeavor. “In the past, most schools shared with other institutions a critical role in building community, but today there is a loss of this sense of community, especially in urban centres, and an increasing sense of isolation and alienation of youth.” (Reimer 5) Service enables these adolescents to form authentic relationships with members of their communities, which by definition have and will always be part of a fundamental system of interdependency. “We must seek to reconstruct comparable systems of dependable interdependency wherever we can - in the workplace, the church, the school, the youth- serving organizations” (Gardner 4) “Involving students in the life of the community is recognized as a valuable way to make education and learning more relevant and meaningful to the lives of youth.” (Reimer 5)
All 4 summers of my high school career, I had the opportunity to go back to Haiti where I lived the first 10 years of my life. In 2013, I decided that finding a way to somehow have a positive impact in the life of anyone around me would have many benefits, with personal development and fellowship being chief among them. Not only would doing so help me grow as an individual, it would also allow me to forge strong relationships that would last a lifetime. With this in mind, I planned to initiate change by using any positive things that I had learned while living in America. The scope of my intended service was pretty large but I wanted to narrow it down to something that would be worthwhile to any beneficiaries. I ultimately decided that I would teach English to kids at a church near my neighborhood. My initiative began rather slowly as kids just did not seem to have any motivation or incentive to learning a language that they probably would not have to use for the rest of their lives. This type of mindset sadly was not only found in Haitian children but also is the case for many Haitian adults. They have become so entrenched in the belief that being Haitian is a disgrace, that they view learning any other language as futile. All this did was push me even further in my attempt to be a difference maker.
A teenage boy about the same age as me finally approached me and said the reason why he was trying to learn English was to complement his hope that he would one day make it to the United States. He believed that learning the language beforehand would make the transition a little easier, but of course that was if he even made it to America to begin with. Eventually, more people began to come and I quickly realized that for many if not all of them, learning English was a “break” from all the poverty, sickness, and pain that they encountered on a daily basis. I had to endure much of the same evils while I lived in Haiti. Now, that I live in America, I do not consider myself more deserving than these people but instead view it as my duty to serve them because with privilege comes responsibility.
The surprising thing about the entire ordeal was the fact that I ended up learning more about myself and growing on a personal level then I did simply getting the satisfaction of volunteering while the majority of other kids my age where enjoying their summers at some beach or a park. Although it had been my dream since being a child, it was during that trip to Haiti that I really made up my mind that my future occupation would have something to do with service. More specifically, I wanted to become a Congressman because I viewed legislation as a necessary component of any true and meaningful change because of its sheer power. Martin Luther King Jr. highlights this point in his letter from his cell in the Birmingham jail, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
When placed within the context of the entire letter, it becomes noticeable that Dr. King recognizes that legislative power and consequent action is needed in order for change to take place. In fact, many times throughout the movie Selma, Dr. King can be seen pleading with President Johnson urging the president to enact new laws that would end segregation because he has noticed that the racists won’t take his protests seriously without some form of government support at the highest level. All in all, this experience essentially had a profound impact on my entire future because it made me realize that in order for change to occur at any level, all that is needed is the conviction that it can happen and the patience, dedication, hard work, and humility to make it happen. The only difference in my case was that I wanted to bring about change through governmental policies.
There is a fundamental system of hierarchy found in the contemporary depiction of service that I believe must disappear. In fact, scientific research points out that an element of hierarchy is implicit in the concept of service. As a relationship, service “manifests itself as an exchange between the server and the served” (Ogden 190) For far too long, we have viewed service through a “quid pro quo” lense where a monetary/power distinction is made between the one(s) who is in possession of the service and the one(s) who does not have it and therefore becomes a recipient of the service. With this them in mind, variations can be analyzed by noting the kind of power relationships that are involved. In focusing on this very observation, Lydia Harder states that very seldom do people experience service as the pure self-gift of another. Concerning the variations found within the power structure of service, Harder is credited with having developed three distinct models of service relationships that shed a light on whether a perceived act of service brings forth development on a personal level. The three models are: Service from below, service from above, and service in solidarity.
In the first model, “service from below”, service arises where inequality exists between the involved parties. “For example, a maid provides service for her employer by cleaning the kitchen and making the beds. She must perform this “service” for the other because it is understood that the employer has some basic right or power.” (Friesen 43) Although the nature of the service may be positive by nature, the eventual goal is for one party to recognize the other as the “power” in the service relationship. The reason for this is because “the one higher in the hierarchy has the freedom to choose what the service will be and how it will be done” (Harder 16) This type of service relationship is essentially behind some of the greatest human rights revolution in history. The lower party felt exploited by the higher party and responded by making sure that the wrongdoings of the latter were rightly dealt with. Such is the case for Nelson Mandela who is credited with having played a central in his country’s abolition of the apartheid regime. He essentially served his people by eradicating a form of injustice that all involved were a victim of, even the ones who practiced and enforced apartheid. Mandela beautifully encapsulates this model of service when he states “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The second model of service is “service from above” which Harder defines as “service [that is] rendered because of the need of others.... This type of service denotes what the server does freely for the served because of some need perceived in the latter which the former has the power to meet.” The most important aspect of this type of service is that there is a shared aspect to it, which is important in the development of a community spirit. Friesen corroborates this point when she writes, “This type of service does allow us to teach, to learn, to care, and to share our resources, which are important aspects of living out the call to “do justice” and “love kindness” Martin Luther King Jr., a major figure in the civil rights movement, embodied this type of service throughout the many years that he served African Americans in their struggle to establish clear justice for all. His visions for racial brotherhood, social equality, and genuine peace where all framed by his passion for serving others. He states, “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” It must state however that there is a danger to this type of service that must be avoided by anyone who attempts to put it into practice. It must not be practiced as a way to appease one’s conscience concerning helping the poor. In fact Harder warns that those providing the service might view themselves as passionate and loving givers while forgetting to provide to their own needs. She states, “... people who are weak and fragile obviously need the help of those who are stronger, but the opposite is equally true: people who are stronger need those who are weak and fragile.” (45)
The third and last model of service is “service in solidarity”. This type of service relationship is one that humanity has been striving for since its very beginning. “Service in this model is freely chosen both by the one who serves and the one being served…In such relationships all the gifts of individuals are used in the service of the community.” (Frieser 47) Nearly every revolutionary to ever grace the Earth has called for this type of service relationship, though their visions and plans of action have varied. From Benazir Bhutto to Frederick Douglass, the thought of a world where all can interact with each other in full faith and trust of each other’s -personalities, sex, skin color, nationality, etc.- has been fervently advocated for. Although progress has been made in that regard, there is still a long way to go before any of these barriers can be effectively torn down.
Out of the three models, “service from above” is the most effective type of service because of its practicality and positive nature. Throughout my life, I have been surrounded by many individuals whom I consider role models and whose love of service has inspired in every sense of the word. No, they were not power parties in a service from below relationship but instead served out of the goodness of their hearts and characters. My father has been the best example to me and has embodied what it means to place others before yourself. He has always told me an old Haitian proverb that says: “Give a loaf of bread to those who need it, and two will return unto you.” This proverb however should not be misconstrued as meaning: Only serve others if you see some form of personal gain as an outcome. In fact, it’s true meaning lies in the theological belief that God blesses those who serve others and looks favorably upon them.
Service has been at the foundation of human interaction for a long time. In its purest form, it serves as a way to connect one’s needs with another’s ability to provide to those needs. Through service, one will be positively influenced in their personal development and their self-identity will be shaped as their understanding of their values, place in this world, beliefs, and story is contextualized through their interaction with those they serve. “[service] creates connections between feelings and thought, between self and others, and between subject matter and life.” (Frieser 59)
Friesen, Maria R. Integrating Service into High School Education: An Exploration of the Impact of Community Service Experience on Personal Development, St. Stephen's College (Canada), Ann Arbor, 2003
Claus, J., & Ogden, C. (Eds.) (1999). Service learning for youth empowerment and social change. New York: Peter Lang.Harder, L. N. (2001). Singing a subversive song of hope. The Conrad Grebel Review. 19(3) 13-32.