A central theme of our group reflections here in Boston has been the problematization of certain issues – to examine critically and challenge a conventional wisdom by acknowledging new perspectives not previously considered. To be sure, this framework has been very helpful in our conversations surrounding race, urban dynamics, and the systemic inequities in our cities.
It has proved similarly relevant in our discussions of civic engagement and service. Last week, our program director, Dr. David Malone, read us quotes from essays reflecting on service written by other Duke students in one of his service-learning courses. In general, they offered a deficit-based narrative about the lower-income and marginalized communities with which many of us are working, perhaps resembling a “White Savior Complex.” They often talked about the self-centered benefits of doing service, such as personal fulfillment. One such quotation read something like, “I hope that my kids will be able to engage the same kind of rewarding service that I have been able to during my service-learning experience this semester.” Naturally, our immediate response was, “Why is your child’s opportunity to engage with under-resourced communities more important than the service or the effect it has on the communities themselves?”
In moments like these, I have left the room feeling defeated. For one, the systemic biases affecting historically-oppressed communities in Boston were becoming uncomfortably clear to me. Nonetheless, a greater awareness of these issues is the first step in understanding them and trying to think about potential solutions. For that, I can thank problematization. But maybe even more disheartening was that even these ostensibly well-intentioned students’ approach to service was problematic, too. Though they may not realize the issues with their comments, at least they are showing an interest in service in the first place, right?
From this perspective, I have been starting to think about some of the problems with problematizing everything. Taken too far, it presents an easy way to become cynical about society and tackling its underlying issues. Last week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Dr. Malone and I talked more about this issue. We agreed that, to some extent, we have to be cautious of over-intellectualizing social problems. For one, it dehumanizes them, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that they are affecting real people. But on another level, over-intellectualization can provide a convenient way to avoid doing anything at all. Certainly, it would be easy to rationalize your lack of service and action by enumerating all the ways it is potentially problematic.
There may be something to be said for simply maintaining a sense of inspiration in the way that we approach our impact on society. After all, we can sit around a table and have esoteric discussions about service and engagement all day, but we ultimately won’t change a thing unless we go out and do something. It’s imperative that we remain conscious of our privilege as Duke students as we work at our nonprofits this summer and further engage with the marginalized neighborhoods of Boston. But even as we approach and reflect on the unmistakably difficult aspects of our service and the social problems they involve, we can’t lose our sense of possibility – because it’s just not an option.