I can’t go into details yet about our data or methods, but we have been talking to inner-city youth about civic and political engagement. I’m forming the hypothesis that when young, working-class and poor Americans hear about “volunteering,” “community service,” or “giving back to the community,” they think of manual labor for no pay. The example that comes up most often is cleaning a street or park. These are precisely the jobs that people in their families and neighborhoods are paid to do (but not paid enough). Nor are such workers treated respectfully by their clients or supervisors; nor do they get opportunities for learning or leadership on the job.
The young adults we talked to attended high schools in which “service-learning” was mandatory. Often in such cases, the students end up cleaning or painting public facilities, under the direction of middle-class adults (teachers and others). So while Mom is cleaning hotel rooms for minimum wage and no benefits, her children may be cleaning parks as part of their education for democracy.
I can hardly think of anything more alienating than to be told that you are now going to study democracy and community, that you will learn habits that you should stick with for the rest of your life, that the way you’re going to study citizenship is to perform low-skilled manual labor, and that no one is going to pay you for that work.
I am proud to be part of the movement for community service and service-learning. I think these opportunities should be expanded. But the first rule is, Do no harm. If done poorly in the context of working-class life, I think service-learning could be one of the most effective and lasting way schools have to disempower their youth.