The back of our green DukeEngage shirts are emblazoned with the program’s slogan: “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” Such a slogan sets a high bar for the program’s expectations. Changing a world—yours or a client’s—is no easy task. Fraught with associations with, service work like that of DukeEngage often carries a “white savior” complex of going into a foreign community, taking pictures with African kids, and walking away feeling a sense of accomplishment having changed the world. What is the meaning of service work for those not on the frontlines, in their home countries, sitting comfortably behind a desk in an office every day? What’s the purpose of a program like DukeEngage, anyways?
I love working for At The Crossroads. The staff is supportive, helpful, and friendly. My work in the development team at ATC is focused on fundraising and supporting the organization’s programs. Faced by the pervasive reality of homelessness that shapes San Francisco, and in conversation with my program partners at Larkin Street Youth who work directly with clients experiencing homelessness, feeling insignificant in my work is hard to avoid. It’s upsetting to feel removed from the populations I intended to serve, knowing that the systemic barriers to housing and jobs that many face are great and I benefit from those very barriers. It’s hard not to feel that I should be doing more, and if only I could dedicate more time and energy I could make a difference. Shouldn’t I be building houses, hammering nails into wood day after day long after everyone else heads home in order to ensure that everyone receives the shelter they need?
The work that I’m doing is important though—development, of course, sustains the organization’s ability to carry out its programs, and in learning these skills I can transfer them to future non-profit work that I engage in. Further, I recognize that in many ways I’m not the person best suited to address the struggles of San Francisco’s homeless population. I’m not a trained counselor, nor am I an expert on the issue able to advocate for homeless clients. Surrounded by the staff at ATC, I feel hopeful—rather than hopeless—that there are people working to make San Francisco a better place, and I can aid them where they need. Working with established organizations minimizes the ethical troubles of white savior service work, and recognizing my role to contribute where needed rather than where I imagine I’m needed is a humbling experience.
At the end of the day, rather than hammering until my arms are tired, I acknowledge that homelessness persists as I continue to learn about the issue and help where I can. Maybe I’m not changing the world this summer. Maybe that’s ok.