Before I start this article, I just want to say that I love Hopkins. I love the campus, I love the diversity, I love meeting new people every day, I love the Chocolate Chunk shakes with soy milk from Brody Café. However, there are some problems with our service culture that I think need to change quite a bit.
Granted, I am a freshman, so I have been here for all of five months. Yet these are issues that I have noticed in myself as well as in others around me.
I have observed that our view of community service and community engagement may contribute to the systemic issues that allow us to volunteer in the first place.
There is a difference between volunteering to help an organization and actually working to change those systemic issues. The former is best exemplified through short-term volunteering efforts like the University’s annual President’s Day of Service (PDOS). Maybe changing this effort to President’s Days of Service, where it becomes a monthly effort to work with the same organization, would be more beneficial.
While PDOS and similar efforts are useful, we need to participate in more sustainable community engagements, rather than brief annual ones.
Yes, volunteering is required in some cases, and yes, it is rewarding work. We as students, as young people who are mostly able-bodied and who are privileged in certain ways, are almost morally obligated to do this work. Volunteering is more than dedicating your time or donating money to a cause — any student can virtually do one or the other.
However, the goal should not be to spend two hours a week working with an organization to help them. It should be working one step further and thinking about what inequality is and why it exists.
Ask yourself, what systemic issue do I need to tackle so that I won’t have to volunteer here in the first place? What systemic issue is causing this organization or community partner to need my assistance? And why should I be the person working with this specific group of people?
Volunteering needs to be intentional and meaningful. If you are not thinking about the layers within the society we live in that allow you to volunteer with such organizations, then it is superficial volunteering. I recommend you find an organization that allows you to make those connections.
You are more than a student at Johns Hopkins. You are a resident of Baltimore — a city with extremely deeply rooted race and inequality issues that impact communities in East and West Baltimore, communities of color and of low-incomes.
If you’re going to be here on campus, don’t feed into the system perpetrated by large institutions like Hopkins in cities like Baltimore. Don’t do nothing as Charles Village continuously looks more pristine and beautiful while more and more houses become abandoned in East and West Baltimore.
Go east or west of North Charles and Saint Paul Street and look for yourself at the inequalities around you. They are drastic.
There are streets and streets of abandoned row houses, trash on the ground and generally deserted areas. The homes were not safe, and their inhabitants could not afford to live there anymore. They are saddening, and you have a role in changing these systemic issues by getting off campus and literally just seeing it for yourself first.
Take service one step further and engage in making sure a bill addressing the issue is passed. Work to support the community in another way. Whatever part of the system speaks to you, be active in doing something about it.
Changing the system will look different for everyone. While there are individual, everyday things you can do, that’s not enough to create real change. Working with communities impacted by the system is essential in giving them the power to also change the system with you.
Time for some more re-evaluating!
Think of a social justice, systemically caused issue that you care deeply about. Let me use an example: environmental justice.
Once I realized that I was part of the problem by buying lots of new clothes from fast-fashion stores, eating meat multiple times a week and driving to and from work for several hours, I made individual life changes. I began to buy secondhand and thrift (or just didn’t contribute to capitalism by not buying at all), became a vegetarian and carpooled to work.
Yes, it was difficult and I made these choices on my own. But I am also privileged in having access to make these changes. And honestly, I wasn’t going to make fossil fuel executives stop exploiting our planet for personal gain by making those choices myself. I needed to work with young people across the world if I actually wanted this issue I cared about to change its course.
And my life changed a lot. I spent less time working at the juice bar near my home and more time knocking on doors to help elect my current state rep. I delayed working on my college applications until after the 2018 midterm elections so I could attend a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. I chose to not attend certain PILOT sessions here on campus because I chose instead to organize with Refuel or Sunrise or Real Food.
My life has changed for the better. I changed my passion for volunteering and studying and being a leader in my school to become an organizer and a leader in my community. I had to give up my time, my other passions, my privilege, in order to fight for our futures, in order to be where I am today.
An account I follow on Instagram, @payformycoffee, posted something on Jan. 30 that I think Hopkins students, and students in general, should read: “... imagine applying that routine into something else… imagine applying that much effort and that much consistency over a span of a few years into something... imagine having that same amount of patience for the thing you actually care about as you had for school... Imagine putting in the same amount of investment you did for school towards the thing you actually care about… best case — you succeed. worst case — you know so so so much more about the thing you care about. so much more than before. imagine that.”
Laís Santoro is a freshman from Downingtown, PA studying Public Health and Environmental Studies. She does service with Alpha Phi Omega and Real Food Hopkins within the Baltimore community.