In becoming more involved with the progressive activist community at the College, I’ve had many conversations with friends and peers about the nature of our work. What are we bringing to campus with our activism? How are we benefiting our own organizations as well as the broader social justice and human rights movements to which we subscribe? How can we better serve our communities?
p. As a member and now president-elect of Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood, I feel the frustration of members who dedicate significant portions of their lives to the pro-choice movement but who oftentimes receive no recognition. Obviously, we are not activists for self-gratification (how nonsensical), but it can be very trying to fight a war on two fronts: serving your movement and defending your work to those who disagree with you. While I see my activism as a means of making the world a better place, that is not the common perception of activist work.
p. I have always been struck by the widespread notion of a dichotomy between activism and “community service.” I see Vox’s work as literally benefiting communities: providing education about sexual and reproductive health, helping women and men get access to family planning and health services and simply raising awareness about these issues in the campus community.
p. In very concrete ways, pro-choice activism serves communities, but it is still relegated to a solely “political” realm rather than seen as volunteerism or assistance to those in need. Maybe it is because issues of reproductive rights and sexual health are so contentious in our society that activists from all perspectives refuse to let the “other side” claim validity for their beliefs by defining that activism in terms of communal benefits.
p. Even more than as a member of the pro-choice movement, though, I see my feminism in terms of community service (a view that would likely be met with skepticism from most people). In my mind, feminist activism is inherently community service; the movement’s goals are to eradicate oppression and ensure equality among all groups of people, and many feminists dedicate their personal and political lives to these objectives. Even though this commitment to human rights may seem honorable on paper, I feel like very few people would consider feminist activism “community service.”
p. According to all-knowing Wikipedia, community service “refers to service that a person performs for the benefit of his or her local community.” So, clearly, projects such as the Bone Marrow Drive, the Rita Welsh Adult Literacy Program and Students Helping Honduras fall under this definition … but what about Vox’s emergency contraception drive or the work the Tidewater Labor Support Committee does for service employees at the College?
p. While this separation of activism and community service seems to be a prevalent ideology, the Student Environmental Action Coalition seems to be breaking down some of these boundaries. Just last week, SEAC won the Office of Student Volunteer Services’ award for “Service Organization of the Year” on campus. This win came as a wonderful surprise to some SEAC members, since their work is not always considered “service” or “volunteerism” by the general public.
p. I spoke with my good friend Liz Burroughs, a senior at the College, about SEAC’s work on campus (Liz is also a member of Vox), and she shared my concerns about the activism/service binary. She said that SEAC was the only “activist” organization considered for this award, and that she was glad that they were being recognized for all the hard work they’ve done over the course of this year. Among other smaller campaigns, SEAC is working to get the College “carbon neutral,” trying to get more organic and local food options in dining halls and starting a food co-op. They have already eliminated Styrofoam take-out containers, raised money for rainforest preservation and obtained seeds for the drainage ditches around campus. Liz spoke very highly of SEAC’s membership and students’ dedication to the cause of environmentalism. She went on to say that, “While I would never describe SEAC as a community service organization, if you take a closer look, the purpose of SEAC is to better our community.”
p. While, at first glance, SEAC may seem like “just” a political organization, Liz’s sentiment certainly rings true — the organization’s purpose is to literally serve the community through protecting the environment and specifically improving the College’s natural resources. I view Vox’s work in a similar light. While there are obviously many who disagree with Planned Parenthood’s stance on abortion, one of the main goals of our organization is to serve the community by providing reproductive and sexual health services to women, especially women who may not be able to obtain these resources for themselves.
In my mind, the difference between activism and community service is not one of motivations or intentions, but rather one of semantics.
p. __Devan Barber, a junior at the College, is a staff columnist. Her columns appear on Tuesdays.__