Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

One Tall Voice: Active service beats ‘lounge chair humanitarianism’

Published: January 18, 2008
Section: Opinions

After much anticipation, former President Bill Clinton visited Brandeis this past December. Although many people probably did not know the precise reasons for Clinton’s speech, thousands of people attended the event. These spectators observed the contributions made by Americorps and the City Year Boston program. After some tunes by a steel drum orchestra, Clinton proceeded to give his speech and promoted a policy of giving and community service.

Overall the event was satisfactory but there are several points about the program that I would like to address. As a two-time Americorps alum, I do not believe that the presentation by the City Year staff accurately reflected the values and realities of this great national service endeavor.

I also hope that Brandeis students understand Clinton’s cause in the true spirit of national service. Rather than merely donating money to websites or executing other passive forms of charity, in the name of service, people should tangibly make change by giving their time and themselves. With these points in mind, let me compose my beliefs.

As previously stated, I am a two-time Americorps alum, serving with the program as a Political Science teacher for inner-city students these past few summers. This experience has given me unparalleled insight into this wonderful organization and its values.

The City Year Boston program included Americorps members running into the arena and standing at attention. They then did jumping jacks on command and shouted “we serve” in unison. These activities may have made Americorps look like a paramilitary organization and some have even joked that the program resembled a display at a Soviet or Nazi youth camp.

This exhibition is in NO way standard for Americorps, and does not reflect the true values of the corps. Americorps is not a paramilitary organization, far from it. It is a group dedicated to national service first, with discipline and regimentation as a secondary consideration.

I hope the display did not scare anyone away from the program because I can assure you, this is not common among service sites. Although we wore uniforms, we never shouted “we serve,” and although we followed the “Americorps Creed” we did not march in step or follow other regimented procedures.

Clinton not only promoted Americorps as a great organization, but also promoted a group called as well. This organization tries to solicit small donations from people in order to give loans to needy people across the globe. Many have heeded Clinton’s advice and have fronted the $25 for the donations.

Herein a problem may result. Many show a sense of pride and almost righteousness at parting with the mammoth sum of $25 and believe their job of helping the needy has been accomplished. This false sense of fulfillment is dangerous as people are content with remotely donating money without truly giving of themselves. I hope that Brandeis students do not fall into this trap and believe these small donations are enough to satisfy the service that Clinton promoted.

This also illuminates one of my opinions concerning national service in general. There are two ways, in my opinion, to serve. One is tangibly giving your time and yourself to a cause, being a foot-soldier on the ground in order to physically assist those in need. The other way is to sit back, donate small amounts of money, maybe work for a charity in their office, and otherwise contribute time without directly affecting others.

This “lounge chair humanitarianism” is dangerous. People can’t believe that working for a lobbying firm or in some office is enough to completely give. Everyone must, at least for some time, become one of those foot-soldiers so that they can tangibly make a difference.

Eli Segal established a framework for this service to occur as he helped establish the Americorps program. I only hope that Brandeis students can utilize this opportunity and others to actively donate time rather than be content to be “lounge chair humanitarians.” a foot-soldier in a righteous cause, and actively give to those who need charity the most. All in all, despite any qualms that I may have had, it was pretty cool to see Clinton, as now I have seen two former presidents in under a year. All we need now is for George Bush to speak, but I won’t hold my breath for that to occur any time soon.