Deconstructing Service

Deconstructing Service

October 14, 2014
Bonner Scholar reflects on his four years of community service

By Sean Hickey, '14

Sean Hickey, '14, shared the following comments about his four years of service as a Bonner Scholar during his capstone Presentation of Learning in March 2014. Hickey, who majored in history and German studies, worked at Henderson Middle School, an urban public school in Northside Richmond with a predominantly low-income student body. Henderson is a Bonner Center for Civic Engagement community partner through both the Bonner Scholars Program and Build It, a neighborhood-based civic-engagement program.

Good afternoon.

For those of you who don't know me very well, I'm Sean Hickey, a senior intern for the Bonner Scholars Program. Before becoming a senior intern, I volunteered at Henderson Middle School as an after-school program leader with the Middle School Renaissance (MSR) program.

My time there caused me to ask many questions of myself, of the public school system, and of volunteering/service writ large. These questions were almost always stimulated by theoretical concepts I studied in courses taken here at UR.

The most grandiose of these questions was, if what we do today is later found to have a bad result, even though we think of our actions and service as good, than have we been doing bad things all along? Does this then mean we should always assume that our service is inherently bad or wrong in order to critically and constantly question our service and ourselves?

In other words, if we constantly think of the very act of volunteering and serving as inherently good and moral, won't we fall into a state of mental security that facilitates neither improvement nor critical assessment of our service?

Though certainly frustrating at times, I think we must constantly be aware of the potential negative consequences of our service. For example, during my role as a program co-leader for Team Building and Write It Up! at Henderson, I often struggled with certain perceptions of cultural values.

One doesn't need to critically analyze the demographic make-up of Henderson Middle School to know that myself and many other volunteers from UR come from a very different background. What I view as good and moral is not necessarily what the students I work with view as good and moral.

Separated by a chasm of geographical place, socioeconomic status, age, and cultural history and tradition, I cannot objectively analyze any aspect of a student's life experience, outlook, or opinion. Rather, I naturally compare that student against myself and my own experiences. The trick to service, I think, is first and foremost to recognize that this happens.

An example from the Team Building program comes to mind. A student, whom we shall call Dave, often toed the line between being well behaved and troublesome. Dave, like many other students at Henderson, had some severe behavioral issues closely tied to his family situation. His mother was in prison due to drug issues and his father was previously absent -- meaning that Dave was raised largely by his older brother, who at the time was struggling with gang involvement.

His father came back, and his brother shaped up slightly, but Dave's home environment was very masculine. It was focused on "being a man." Thus, Dave was not allowed to show emotion; he had to bottle it up and was encouraged to respond physically when challenged, even with girls of his age. Consequently, due to his bottled-up emotions, Dave -- only a sixth grader -- could have a nasty temper, which often appeared in an instant.

One day his temper flared, and he almost punched a girl in the face because she had been teasing him about his body weight. I intervened and went on a walk with him around the school hallways.

As we walked around the school, Dave was crying, not only because he was frustrated and overwhelmed by the situation, but also because he was simply embarrassed to be crying. Dave and I had a long talk during which I expressed to him some negative impacts of suppressing emotion, using examples both from my past and from Dave's recent outburst.

I then asked him if he could think of any healthier ways to grapple with how he was feeling. He said that the walk helped him to gather his head. So he and I worked out a system where, if he was feeling overwhelmed, he would walk up to me and privately say, "Sean, I need my 10." Then I would let him collect his thoughts outside the classroom for no more than 10 minutes.

Ultimately, as a result of our walk and conversation, as well as the "10-minute compromise," Dave's behavior, demeanor, and overall performance in both the Team Building program and his school-day classes improved. A win, right? Not necessarily.

Although I walked away from that experience with a positive feeling, I still couldn't help but wonder if Dave's "reformation" held any negative ramifications for him at home. I realize that I have no way of knowing whether it did; nonetheless, it pressed, and continues to press, on my mind.

Initially, I was frustrated. "Why should I let this bother me? I clearly helped him! I should feel good about helping him resolve an emotional issue!" ran the argument in my head. But, should we feel good after service, even if we did something "good"? This question would plague my mind for some time.

As I read my old write-ups in preparation for this presentation, I think that one of the reasons I arrived at this question was because I often didn't feel good after service. It was far more common for me to be frustrated, disappointed, or just plain exhausted as I left Henderson.

Feeling good was odd. Indeed, I wrote this in my write-up from April 23, 2012: "Generally, service at Henderson has a negative impact on my personal life. I often come away from service frustrated that the students don't seem to want to cooperate, and thus aren't learning anything. Not to mention the feeling of powerlessness against the social forces which push these kids into poverty and crime-ridden neighborhoods then prevent them from escaping."

This quote seems to capture an issue that I struggled with throughout my service: How am I supposed to feel about this?

Not only was service frustrating at times, but I was also confronted with issues of internal colonialism. Courses I took and my interest in the history of European imperialism and its overwhelmingly negative consequences led me to find literature on internal colonialism, a term used to describe the structural and chronic marginalization of certain groups within a nation-state or other imagined community.

If I was ready to condemn the practices of a number of humanitarian-aid organizations as neocolonialist, how was I to reconcile doing essentially the same thing at Henderson? Ultimately, it was the students I worked with who helped me realize that, despite my reservations about the effectiveness and ethics of my service, it was absolutely necessary.

In the same write-up quoted above, I described how, on the last day of service for that semester, some of the students wrote cards. I got a few cards, but one really struck me. It was from a student who was particularly frustrating and troublesome.

He wrote that he really enjoyed the program, listed a few activities we did that he really liked, and then wrote that he would miss me over the summer and couldn't wait for the fall and another semester of Team Building.

Because this student was a troublemaker, a student that I thought really hated the program, because he rarely cooperated, and because he wrote it, this letter meant a lot to me. In my write-up I stated: "That card was powerful. It showed, to me at least, that I'm doing something right. I'm not really sure what it is, but I'm doing something right."

I'm still not really sure what I'm doing, but I think I've come to terms with my service. It is absolutely crucial to maintain a critical attitude towards service, for we can only improve if we question what we are doing and how we are currently doing it, not to mention how it was done in the past.

I cannot say, however, that constantly questioning, constantly being critical, and constantly attempting to improve isn't exhausting, because it absolutely is. And though I've relayed a story of frustration and difficulty, I do not want the message I leave here to be a negative reflection of my Bonner experience. I had many happy and uplifting experiences that I associate with Bonner, I just chose not to tell any of those because stories without conflict don't push people to think.

I would, however, like to end with a happy story.

During the summer of 2012, my good friend, roommate, teammate, and fellow Bonner, Mike Blodgett, and I went to Namibia for our second Bonner summer of service to work with a nonprofit focused on wild-desert-elephant conservation. During our time there we met a lot of interesting people, but the most interesting of all was a 58-year-old Scottish man named Colin Valentine.

Colin doesn't have a permanent address. He travels the world, applying his specialized skills in agriculture, safari guiding, and mechanical engineering to fund his next adventure. Throughout his worldly travels, however, he has, for the past 25 years or so, always gone back to work with a sea-turtle-conservation agency in Northwestern Australia.

When we asked him why he's gone back to that organization for so many years, he told us that apart from being fascinated by sea turtles, he keeps going back because of the young people. He told us that working in sea-turtle conservation is nearly pointless and incredibly frustrating, because there's really only so much you can do.

But, he keeps going back because there's always a fresh group of youngsters who bring a raw energy and unspoiled spirit to the cause, who truly believe that they can change the world and save all the sea turtles. Colin keeps going back to an underfunded sea-turtle-conservation agency because those young people re-energize him and give him the energy, if not also the hope, to keep going.

In closing then, I'd like to thank a very special group of people. Aside from my fellow class of 2014 Bonners, aside from Bryan, Blake, Heather, Cassie, Adrienne, and everyone else who works in the CCE who certainly deserve my thanks, I'd like to thank this year's first-year class of Bonners, the Bonner class of 2017.

You all came into the Bonner Scholars Program with eager and excited faces, with the raw energy and unspoiled spirits Colin spoke of. Simply talking and working with you all gave me a renewed sense of energy and purpose, and I truly hope that each of you will continue to do great work, learn and serve critically, and act as mentors to the Bonner classes soon to come. Mostly though, I hope that you all become frustrated -- just not too frustrated.

Thank you.

Watch Sean Hickey's Presentation of Learning.