Despite overcast and somewhat melancholic weather two Saturdays ago, Columbia Community Outreach managed to bring bright smiles to students on campus with its annual large-scale community service event. As the uplifting sounds of top-20 hits rang out over loud speakers, students donned CCO 2009 t-shirts and streamed banners promoting “urban experience,” “outreach,” and “integration.” As expected, the campus’ altruistic high was supplemented with whole-wheat bagels, free trade coffee, and downright adorable Panera lunch bags.
Founded in 1997, CCO is a student-run organization intended to “promote community service on campus” and “bring together the Columbia University community to raise awareness for volunteerism.” Unfortunately, in the midst of planting tulips and painting murals in inner city parks, many volunteers were too distracted by these amusing tasks to ask some important questions—what it really meant to “promote community service,” what constitutes “service,” and whether this day of philanthropic adventure into the depths of the inner city truly impacted the communities there. In many ways, several hours at a site became a means of suppressing the strange realization that perhaps there is an air of inequality in the Morningside Heights community. Although I felt comfortable during my day of service, I did not find my CCO ’09 uniform and complimentary drawstring backpack to be particularly soothing.
As for my own renewal project of the day, I had the pleasure of guiding ten volunteers into Brooklyn’s Crown Heights community to survey citizens about their sexual preferences and knowledge about the HIV virus. The virus, in many cases, had infected at least several of the community members’ acquaintances and/or family members. This outreach project, facilitated by a non-profit I have been interning for, took place in local discount stores, laundromats, and a Popeye’s restaurant. Naturally, my peers and I were praised by the activity director for “stepping out of our comfort zone” and into “different communities.” To celebrate this day of epic discovery and service, CCO provided pizza, drinks and ice cream to all volunteers who participated. One student summed up his day by stating, “It was interesting.” The day had been an utter success.
Now that the music has stopped, the complimentary cold cut sandwiches consumed, and the volunteers re-preoccupied with personal endeavors, perhaps we should revisit the message promoted by CCO for just a moment and reflect on how it represents the University’s concept of service. Granted, the intent of CCO is one that should be praised, but the distance created between the volunteers and the communities is something that must be addressed. While volunteers may have left Central Park a bit more aesthetically pleasing with butterfly gardens, a classroom of inner city children beaming with paper crafts, and the Crown Heights community with the thoughtful reminder to wear a rubber for the day, how on earth is it acceptable to leave these communities in such conditions? Is there something wrong with the fact that Columbia students need to spend four hours on a Saturday to raise their awareness of the inequality that characterizes the Morningside Heights campus? Perhaps Columbia students, faculty, and administration would see more fervor for service and more outreach if the real issues of these communities were no longer dismissed as “interesting,” Instead, we should see them as jarring examples of the inequality that we blindly accept as members of an esteemed university. It is through the shattering of this complacency—the removal of this blindness wrought by making inequality and injustice pretty or interesting—that a glimpse at change is possible.
But before ever taking a glimpse at the real conversations that will occur on the freshly painted benches, the struggles that the children did not share with volunteers over jump rope and hand games, and what it would actually mean to have a family member infected with the HIV virus, students must be willing to conceptualize the reality of what it means to serve a community. Outreach is not an afternoon endeavor. Awareness is not an icebreaker activity. Outreach, at the very least, is an understanding that donning sparkling white cotton t-shirts, labeling oneself a volunteer, and being rewarded for four hours of service is nothing more than another equally disturbing means of remaining comfortable in our privilege. And it is such complacency, such comfort that inhibits us from sharing our passion, talent, and potential and in turn replaces it with ice cream, souvenirs, celebration, and sunshine.