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Over the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with a few organizations in West and South Philadelphia, including Penn for Youth Debate, Urban Tree Connection, and HIAS. Along the way I’ve had to re-examine the many misconceptions I had about the nature of community service, how Penn students can be effective agents of change and what it actually means to be a part of the Philadelphia community.

As Penn students, we carry our own set of privileges, identities and experiences that other people living in Philadelphia may or may not share with us. When we choose to go out into the community and volunteer, we have to always be cognizant of those differences. They will shape how able you are to develop relationships with community members, how receptive the community is to your work and in turn how successful your volunteering will be. Instead of shirking behind them and pretending these differences don’t exist, have genuine conversations about your experiences.

One of the most authentic moments I had while volunteering was a conversation I had with high school students about the privileges that I had growing up and going to school in a suburb. This kind of identity navigation is both difficult and necessary. It requires that you constantly reevaluate and interrogate your own identity, especially as it relates to the community you are trying to serve

Furthermore, because most students only stay in Philadelphia for four years, we have a fundamentally different relationship with the city than people who have lived here for years. We may not be perceived as authentic members of the community. It’s important to remember that the burden is on us to prove that we really do care about the wellbeing of the community. Given Penn’s extensive history of gentrification and displacement, community members have good reason to be wary of Penn students.

Students are often presented with a very specific definition of what community service is and isn’t. We are told that community service is cleaning up beaches, helping kids with their homework or serving soup at the homeless shelter. In large part this is because of the kind of community service organizations present on Penn’s campus. This deeply ingrained idea of community service is grounded in being unquestionably helpful and passive. It’s about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it's created. It is not about challenging underlying power structures, building solidarity, generating conflict or organizing for institutional change. 

This is ultimately short-sighted and untenable because short term fixes like the tutoring and the beach cleanups are intimately connected to the deeper and longer term struggle for structural change. In doing any kind of service work, we must examine and challenge the structural causes that create the inequities that necessitate your service in the first place. So it’s not enough to just tutor children in West Philadelphia. You have to campaign for the Philadelphia school district to receive the same amount of funding per pupil from state and local government that students in the nearby Lower Merion school district receives. And on a more local scale, you should fight to convince Penn to pay PILOTS (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) as Penn severely depletes the property tax revenue available for schools by not having to pay taxes on the large amounts of land they own. This again requires that you take the time to educate yourself about the broader institutional factors affecting your community. Tackling the structural may not be thought of as ‘community service’ but it is necessary.

Getting involved with the community is something that all Penn students can benefit from, but it is not something that people can jump into headfirst. It requires being thoughtful and intentional about the kind of work you are doing as well as why you are doing that work in the first place.

Ajjit Narayanan is a sophomore in the College

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