By Taylor Sprague
Service is not simple. Community service and engagement requires individuals and groups to be flexible, open-minded, and critical when planning and implementing direct service experiences. As we develop a passion for certain social issues and desire to see a change, we must be willing to learn and adapt our strategies for working with community partners.
This is a lesson I have learned through experience as one of the coordinators for the Godwin Middle School Leadership Program. Godwin Middle School is a Title I school situated in a low-income area of Prince William County. The LEAD Office at George Mason has been working with Godwin to provide leadership development opportunities to the students in a variety of capacities over the past several years, but the success of the program has relied on the way it has molded based on feedback from both Mason and Godwin students.
There are a few questions that have become integral to the way that Godwin has adapted, and I list and discuss them here as a framework for developing the way we view service.
- Who’s needs does the program serve?
For individuals who are passionate about making an impact and a difference in their community, finding and creating service opportunities can become a priority. However, it is important that the needs of the community we are working with are at the forefront of our mind. If we are looking for new Instagram photos, to rack up service hours, or to prove the values of ourselves and our organizations, we have lost the purpose behind the work. If something does not work for the community in question, there should be critical reflection about its purpose.
- Are you making a lasting relationship with the community partner?
The first two times we went to Godwin, we did one all-day conference during the year. We realized after the second one that we weren’t doing enough to create a relationship in the school and make a meaningful contribution. One of the biggest issues with so many forms of service is that a group goes into a community, provides a service for one day, and then leaves without returning for a long period of time or, sometimes, ever. We must create deep and meaningful relationships with our community partners that allow us to make a presence with them and establish a relationship. We create more of an interruption and deficit when we provide resources for one day within the year and never show up again. With Godwin, we decided to included leadership workshops throughout the year so that we were developing more meaningful relationships with the school and community.
- Do the volunteers have the skills necessary to fulfill the needs of the community?
One of the most important things about community engagement is ensuring that volunteers have the knowledge necessary to adequately serve. If we enter communities that we know nothing about to complete tasks that we do not have the skills for, our presence creates a detriment far worse than the issues that that community may already be facing. Facilitating meaningful training prior to engaging in service is imperative, and the level of that training or orientation should be relative the degree of service that is being done.
- Are new leaders being trained to take over the program as leadership transitions out?
No one stays around forever. People get burnt out, they change jobs, they move, or, in my case, they graduate from college. As we develop these programs and partnerships, we must be preparing new leaders to take ownership and continue the program for years to come. By doing this, we develop a deeply rooted commitment to this community and ensure that we do not fail to meet expectations.
These are only a few questions that have surfaced in the development of the Godwin Middle School Leadership Program over the past few years. There are so many things that come into play when we discuss community service and engagement. The most important lesson that I have learned, however, is that we must be willing to humbly accept criticism and feedback if we are to become effective agents of change.