Kim: Debunking ‘Service’

On Saturday, Yale students and alumni all over the world will participate in the Yale Day of Service. In New York City, the projects organized by the “Public Service/Social Justice Committee” of the local alumni group range from “sprucing up parks” to “reading books to children” and “teaching tennis.” This is the second annual Day of Service, and I dread and rebuke it as much as I did last year.

A planned day of charity is ultimately a misdirection of time and energy, lost both on participants and their intended beneficiaries. How regrettable that the vast resources and talents of Yale’s diaspora reduce to this: the superficial motions of volunteerism.

Elite institutions like Yale should demand more from their students, faculty, administration and alumni. We should commit to being and producing thoughtful, provocative and creative servants of society — not the kind who paint schools once a year but the kind who ask why certain schools in certain neighborhoods are always in disrepair. Our task is to understand and then change these imbalanced power structures.

The financial sector has become the path of least resistance for Yale graduates. Much of this is institutional, representing a broader move from the intellectual and humanistic to the vocational and corporate. In his 2008 essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” former Yale English Professor William Deresiewicz observes that “[t]he liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university” and that “elite universities are not going to do anything to discourage the large percentage of their graduates who take their degrees to Wall Street.” Indeed, at Yale’s Undergraduate Career Services career fair this year, large corporations outnumbered non-profit and government agencies three to one; corporate recruiters shower students with free meals and swag, luring them into immediately lucrative but soulless work. And their efforts seem to be paying off: One wonders about the 74 percent of 2008 Yale graduates who entered the job market right away, compared to 36 percent in 1975 (when twice as many pursued graduate school in the arts and sciences). I would bet that a large fraction of that 74 percent joined the ranks of corporate America.

As Michael Moore observes in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” graduates are increasingly funneled into hedge funds and banks, rather than further study, public research institutions or justice-oriented jobs. At what point do we stop to evaluate our role in circulating money and manipulating capital? Day after day, we elevator up and down shiny towers, propagating wealth accumulation and denying that our work has any effect on real people and real oppressions.

The Yale Day of Service and its ideological relatives are complicit in this myth. We are made to believe that if we donate our money, parachute into “bad” neighborhoods and sacrifice the occasional Saturday, we are being good. Yet, particularly in this moment of profound economic and emotional despair, it is evident that depressed neighborhoods and oppressed communities need a lot more than tennis lessons. We should know better than to pat ourselves on the back for such simpleminded charity.

Yale could transform its Day of Service into a day of reflection and conversations with activists, policymakers, and socially engaged artists and scholars. We would have the opportunity to inquire of ourselves and interrogate notions of community, participation and power — hopefully spurring action. At the end of this day, some of us would nevertheless respond, “I do my job because I like money, and I have no problem enjoying my wealth.” But this, too, would be an important achievement. Let’s be honest with ourselves and understand where exactly our labors lead.

It would be naïve to propose that everyone quit their six-figure jobs and enter the public sector. What I am proposing, however, is that Yale and its global citizens replace charity and volunteerism with introspection and candid dialogue that could engender change. As critical thinkers and privileged members of society, we should comprehend “service” before devoting a day to it.

E. Tammy Kim is a 2002 graduate of Trumbull College and taught the college seminar “Sexual Slavery and the Project of Social Repair” last fall. She is currently a staff attorney in the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, an adjunct professor at The Cooper Union and a freelance writer and illustrator.

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