SCHWARTZ: Separating service and politics

“Social justice” is an increasingly popular yet disturbingly slippery term. The phrase serves as a rallying cry for a diverse collection of groups; soup kitchens, tax reform advocates and everyone in between seem to jump at the label. The diversity of those on the social justice train certainly does not help define the term, but it does present fundamental challenges that should make thoughtful people nervous.

One of the best exemplars of social justice’s complex diversity is Yale’s Dwight Hall. Dwight Hall’s mission is “to foster civic-minded student leaders and to promote service and activism in New Haven and around the world.” It is a self-described non-partisan “Center for Public Service and Social Justice” that includes a fraternity, the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Dwight Hall’s Social Justice Network has member groups that include the union-backing Undergraduate Organizing Committee. (The actual relationship between Dwight Hall and the member groups of its Social Justice Network is somewhat fuzzy and likely in transition.)

Dwight Hall’s missions of “service” and “activism” certainly don’t help to clear up the “social justice” ambiguity. “Service” usually refers to concrete, uncontroversial, charitable action by private actors. “Activism” describes persuasive activities aimed at affecting public action — usually for controversial goals. These two seem to be conceptually different activities, and the ambiguity created by lumping the two together is worrisome.

On a surface level, there may be something appealing and intuitive about the social justice model of joining progressive advocacy and charitable service. Those involved in both sorts of initiatives try to help the poor, establish equity and solve fundamental problems in society.

Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between consensus supported service and partisan advocacy. Is legal representation for the indigent advocacy? Is protecting an individual’s civil rights all that different from helping her stave off foreclosure? Is reproductive education advocacy? What about abstinence education? Is advocacy for action on genocide or LGTBQ rights not a consensus issues on this campus?

This perspective is certainly valid. Of course there are borderline cases where service and advocacy seem to blend together, and of course there are some causes with broad local support despite their political nature. Nevertheless, the intermingling of service and advocacy is a fundamentally counterproductive development. It alienates some worthy public servants and misconstrues our public obligations, and we would be better served severing the one from the other.

Americans in general, and Yalies in particular, are crazy busy and have limited resources. But most of us do have a sense of ethical obligation. As we set our schedules and examine our bank statements, we consider our obligations and interests and try to ensure that we allot proper resources to each. Terms like “social justice” cloud our judgment. Working to elect Jeanette Morrison or donating to a political party may be worthy causes, but we should never confuse hours and money spent on advocacy with genuine charitable giving. It will always be easier to call your congressman than to feed the hungry, and the phrase “social justice” allows us to justify our way out of responsibility.

But there are also more tangible problems with the broad language of social justice. Dwight Hall’s broad language of service and activism seems to be quite inclusive. But when one actually searches the list of member and affiliated organizations, there are jarring absences: Conservative groups are not currently part of Dwight Hall and its affiliated networks. Public Service? The Social Justice Network has the Liberal Party — but no Conservatives. Advocacy? There is a pro-choice group — but no pro-life.

The liberal dominance in social justice organizations highlights a central problem created by the conceptual collapsing of charitable giving with partisan political advocacy. Social justice organizations may try to distinguish between issue advocacy and politics. But these distinctions fail to pass the smell test. Is abortion advocacy apolitical? Environmental advocacy? Higher taxes? Advocacy is political, and politics is divisive.

An organization devoted to charity fits into broad social consensus. Nearly everyone at Yale supports the work done by YHHAP and feels perfectly comfortable contributing to its programs and initiatives. But YHHAP can only suffer from its entanglement with advocacy groups that are often indistinguishable from political partisans.

Separation of advocacy and service is about much more than protecting a 501(c)3 status. Even an indirect or perceived connection between Dwight Hall and the Undergraduate Organizing Committee — instrumental in the success of union-backed candidates in recent New Haven elections — damages an otherwise unifying institution.

Institutional promoters of social justice who mix advocacy and service should think carefully about the effects of their actions. But more important than any organization’s decisions are the distinctions that we draw in our own minds. Regardless of what institutions do, I hope students understand the fundamental difference between acts of charity and acts of advocacy. And let us never allow the complications of the latter to interfere with the performance of the former.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at


  • Gregg Gonsalves

    As someone who has worked for service and advocacy based organizations before coming to Yale, I must tell you that the dichotomy you seem to want to enforce is a sterile one and has its own political agenda.
    Charity, whether it is housing the homeless or feeding the poor, is a response to a political failure, of states’ inability or unwillingness to provide for their citizens. When private citizens or private charities step in to help, they are filling gaps in what should be state provision.
    Why should states have the responsibility to provide for the less fortunate in society, rather than charities? Because basic social and economic rights should be a government’s responsiblity: this kind of thinking gave us programs like Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and Medicare.
    You want charity to be apolitical, but that is a political statement in and of itself. That statement implies, we should be satisfied with doing a little bit for a few people, but not changing the underlying dynamics and systems that have created these needs and failed to respond to them.
    Gregg Gonsalves
    BK ’11
    Yale School of Public Health

  • River_Tam

    >Because basic social and economic rights should be a government’s responsiblity

    That’s a very political statement, and the fact that you don’t realize it means Mr. Schwartz’s column pretty much hits the mark.

    • Gregg Gonsalves

      Well, that sentence from my response IS a political statement, I’ll agree, but so is Mr. Schwartz’s whole piece. It’s not just a philosophical distinction Mr. Schwartz is making; it is one with political implications. He wants us to be able to do charitable works without any kind of political valence and definitely without ever explicitly engaging in the political implications of service. So, in his world, you can feed the poor, but should not speak out against hunger; shelter the homeless, but remain quiet about foreclosures, rising housing prices, gentrification; work in a rape crisis center, but decide that women’s rights and gender violence have nothing to do with what is happening around you; treat sick people, but never challenge the social determinants of health that make them sick in the first place. This may be how Mr. Schwartz wants to see his role in the world, and service to others should always be commended, but the idea that not speaking up for those you serve is some purer form of action is a political and indeed moral choice, just as much as the advocacy that Mr. Schwartz sees as so inappropriate.

      • River_Tam

        > Well, that sentence from my response IS a political statement, I’ll agree, but so is Mr. Schwartz’s whole piece.

        Advocating a separation of advocacy and service is political in the same way that advocating a separation of church and state is religious.

        Technically, yes. But you’re missing the point.

  • gz2012

    As Gregg says, the dichotomy you’re talking about is all but impossible to determine realistically. As someone who has worked extensively with YHHAP, I’m flattered to hear you think that nearly everyone supports our work – but the idea that our work never involves advocacy is just silly. (And, as Gregg says, even if it did purely consist of distributing food or whatever you consider to be “charity,” that itself would be a political stance.) If YHHAP is your best example of a perfectly service-based institution, then I think that proves the untenability of your distinction.

    More importantly, though: you might be correct in the abstract that removing all advocacy from service (whatever that means) would gather more people around doing service. But the goal here is not to “do service” – the goal is to create change, and improve people’s lives in whatever way possible. Perhaps you think the best way to create change is through purely private action. After a lot of work and study of these issues, I find that extremely implausible to say the least, but you might feel differently. If so, that’s the argument we should be having: whether a “pure-service” strategy is more likely to change more lives for the better. The comfort and discomfort of Yale students is far less important than the outcomes of our work.

    Also, I’m curious what kind of research you did into Dwight Hall before writing this. The Liberal Party is connected to Dwight Hall not because of its liberal stance, but because the group engages in service activities. (If you look carefully, you’ll find more groups like this, some of which even lean conservative.) But even more importantly, the Liberal Party is not a Dwight Hall group; it is a member of the Social Justice Network, and not all SJN groups are members of Dwight Hall. I gather you understand this distinction because of your comment about the “fuzzy” relationship of SJN to Dwight Hall, but if so this is a particularly obfuscating argument.

  • desch

    To be fair, the Liberal Party does do volunteer work in the community. In fact, I am pretty sure they regularly volunteer in soup kitchens. I have yet to hear, though I would be happy to be proven wrong, about a conservative party from the YPU that volunteers in New Haven. They also regularly work with other student groups like MEChA, which offers free public services like college counseling to local spanish speaking students. If the conservative parties would like to spend time working with us and offering help to students (we dont pressure them with political views, we encourage them to go to college…) then we would love to have them!

  • LtwLimulus90

    Members of groups like the Tory Party and Federalist Party volunteer on their own with groups like YHHAP and its peer groups rather frequently actually, as I’m sure members of other conservative political organizations (though I think there aren’t that many of them) do. Those two groups, however, are not organized around service-their mission is obviously something different. Where Mr. Schwartz is completely correct, however, is in saying that that overt liberal bend of Dwight Hall is not only insulting and insensitive (ironic, right?) to those who aren’t liberal, but it makes conservative students feel uncomfortable about their own involvement. As a conservative student myself, I remember vividly the looks of disdainful judgement tossed at me when I elucidated that fact while volunteering for an unnamed Dwight Hall group. An example of a conservative group that should be allowed into Dwight Hall but probably won’t be is CLAY, which is clearly an advocacy group, and clearly a vociferous one at that. Because I’m sure some people at Dwight Hall would likely find that CLAY’s mission runs counter to another advocacy group under its umbrella (though this shouldn’t matter according to its charter) or believe that a pro-life stance is equivalent to at best and radical right wing misogyny (“the hated of women” literally, many people forget that) at worst, CLAY will likely forever be excluded. Obviously that is a biased assessment of this segment of conservative politics, but on our often oppressively liberal campus (not all the time, but much more frequently than most would like to admit) this bias is something that fosters rampant hypocrisy.

  • yalieForASaneNH

    “It will always be easier to call your congressman than to feed the hungry, and the phrase ‘social justice’ allows us to justify our way out of responsibility.”

    This is preposterous! From my experience as an activist, the reverse is much more likely. If anything allows us to “justify our way out of responsibility” it’s charitable giving … too frequently causes become some kind of accessory (cause bracelets, pink ribbon-wear)…a way to assuage our guilt or make us *appear* like we care, without having to examine the root causes underlying the need for charity in the first place. What’s most irresponsible is pretending to care for the poor or “indigent” (??) while failing to examine or address the structural factors behind inequality, in which we might find ourselves and our consumer capitalist lifestyles implicated.

    But perhaps the author has a point (not totally convinced)… perhaps we DO need to be more thoughtful and critical when tossing around phrases like “social justice.” We would all benefit from broader discussions like these. For instance many well-intentioned students out there trying to “help” the poor might actually be more effective if they stopped to think about the dynamic of helper-help, or examined their own privilege and how to check it so as to make the world less oppressive for those who don’t enjoy that same privilege. So I agree – “service” and “social justice” should not be conflated. Finding -in theory, but especially in practice – the connections between the two, however, is extremely useful.

    As for the idea that we should avoid being “controversial” – the author’s real problem seems to be that campus service and activism isn’t as “inclusive” of conservatives as it is of liberals. Shouldn’t conservatives have just as much opportunity to do charity work and feel good about themselves? Sorry but conservatives caring about the poor?? This is a problem with conservatives self-selecting what and who they care about, not with Dwight Hall being “biased.” If you don’t like the fact that conservatives aren’t concerned with the welfare of the less fortunate …ha well I’m right there with you. But I’m sorry to say that ain’t Dwight Hall’s fault. You have a choice in political affiliation and ideology. Just as you have many choices in what service and/or social justice activities to partake -or abstain from.

    This is the most offensive article I’ve seen in the YDN in some time…and that’s saying something.