Defining Community Service

Hello everyone!

My name is Andrea Felix, and in a few months I am joining CommonAction’s team in Seattle. I am currently finishing the last months of my two year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer supporting the National Youth Council of Dominica. Before my time as a PCV I was the manager of Youth Service America’s Youth Voice Initiative, working with dozens of organizations and hundreds of young people and adults across the country to promote youth involvement. This is my first entry to the CommonAction blog – so please be nice!

What is community service? “1. Service volunteered by individuals or an organization to benefit a community or its institutions. 2. Similar work performed by law offenders to serve a sentence in lieu of or in addition to jail time.” These are the two definitions of “community service” from the dictionary.

I understand that people in the US still believe that community service is only performed to right a wrong, but a large – and growing – number of people also believe that community service is done out of one’s altruistic sense of giving back to the neighborhood, city, state, and country in which one lives.

While this shift from :bad” to “good” community service might be coming to a resolve in the US, a recent meeting with members of the National Youth Council of Dominica and the Welfare Division led me to feel that I was in a deep canyon with steep walls on either side when the conversation began. And, as I thought we were making strides and could grip on to the slippery, yet thoughtfully positioned walls on the way up and (hopefully) out of the crevasse that seemed to engulf me and delude my very being and how I’ve come to view “community service”… I once again slid back down to the base, as if I had made no advancement to the threshold of what I saw as my achievement within the 90 minute conversation: getting people to accept one definition for a word or phrase, but also noting that there are others that can and do exist.

Please, don’t get me wrong…I do understand that “community service” is used in punitive measures. But, you can’t tell me that when a group of worship, school club, community organization, or others who are just concerned about changing a situation call the “community service” that they are performing “punitive”.

While I knew that the meeting we were having wouldn’t necessarily change the mindset of the entire Welfare Division within Dominica and be able to influence the powers that be. (After all, the paper was raising questions and concerns about the current situation of youth incarceration alongside older/hardened criminals with little to no programming addressing a young person’s specific needs and development processes and the long term effects that being locked up with older criminals could have.) I also didn’t think that the bulk of the discussion would revolve around the definitions of “community service” with one side trying to convince the other that there is more than one way “community service” is seen.

As the outsider coming in, I was in a better position to push the buttons and see where they would lead and not just accept what was coming towards me at face value. It forces me ask the question: “In a country where it seems that most things are taken as they are given, will it ever be possible for things to improve if no one questions the status quo or is labeled “mad” when they do?” Without a rise in the critical mass that seems to be needed for real and lasting change to take place I am left doubtful.

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