Balance Between Public Service and Service Learning

I’ve spent this past week thinking more broadly about the nature of the work that I’ve been doing, and I still struggle to find a happy medium between work that I think is intellectually stimulating and less challenging work that nevertheless must be done for these programs to continue. The mundanity of the latter can sometimes breed frustration, offering me little in terms of the larger issues that interest me, but I also understand its necessity. The overwhelming majority of public service work, in fact, is of this less challenging nature. Our programs are grounded by the physical labor of weeding the farm or processing kale in the kitchen. Through these small acts, we support the larger structures already put in place in our community in order to combat larger issues of food security and food justice. Yet actually completing these small acts can feel monotonous and unfulfilling.

I have to check my pride when performing such tasks, however, because even though I personally find little fulfillment from them, they are working towards discernible goals that do make a difference in the end. The Campus Kitchen is a good example. I find my work there to be boring, from making the food to cleaning the place up at the end of each shift. I don’t feel challenged by the work, and my hatred of cleaning my own dishes is amplified when it comes to the much larger haul that must be taken care of at the kitchen. I understand that my work there is a part of a great initiative–reducing food waste in the community in order to feed those in need–so I would find it selfish and prudish to stop my work at the kitchen altogether, but I can’t help but feel uninspired when I’m there.

There are other programs, however, that may allow me to challenge myself intellectually and place my own mark on the community. Yet I think that this can be the dangerous part of service learning: performing tasks that I find fulfilling but which do little in terms of service. I can see how this would play out in a program like Work Ready. On the one hand, I could create a workshop, say on interview skills, that offers little outside of what Work Ready programs traditionally do. But just as easily I could create a workshop on interesting material that challenges me, say on the obscure works of my favorite author J. M. Coetzee, but I think it would be inaccessible and uninteresting to the women there. What I seek to do instead is to find something that can challenge me like the latter but still maintain some of the practicality of the former. I know that part of this internship is meant to offer us chances to take risks and do things that we want to do, but I think that some of that practicality needs to remain in place to make sure that the community, and not just myself, still benefits. Because if I can’t do that, what gives me the right to say that I shouldn’t be processing kale or pulling weeds this whole time?

Darren Spirk ’16