ANYBODY CAN SERVE

Anya Kamanetz has a great piece in the Times criticizing the role of unpaid internships in reinforcing inequality and discouraging assertion of material needs by employees and future employees. As she observes, these internships, because they require taking an economic loss during the summer to pay for cost of living while receiving no wage, function as a luxury good available largely to the already privileged – and at the same time, they serve as crucial qualifications for future employment. So they make it easier for the most fortunate among us to stay that way (inadequate financial aid systems are part of the problem as well). And at the same time, these internships support the sense that if you truly care about something, you shouldn’t care about getting paid for it. Which is easier not to care about when you don’t need the money. As Dana Goldblatt observed, “By letting myself be exploited, I’m actually exploiting others.”

Over at Campus Progress, Asheesh notes that progressive organizations are often stretched thin as it is. That’s indisputable. But the unwillingness of so many groups on the left to economically support those potential summer interns who can’t work for free evidences a failure to take a long-term strategic interest in building our base and diversifying the leadership of our movements. And it’s an unfortunate example of the lack in many corners of the modern American left of a systematic account of class and the role it plays in modern American life.

That problem was all too clear when I asked the president of a leading environmental group why the movement wasn’t more diverse and she responded that her group could only recruit “joiners.”

It’s also clear in the valorization by many on the left of an ethic of volunteerism as the ultimate foundation of civic life. I’m all for community service. But statements that make unpaid service out to be the most noble of activities obscure this country’s dependence on the men and women who do critical work for long hours teaching children and caring for patients and serving food and get paid (though not enough) – because if they weren’t being paid, they couldn’t provide for themselves and their families. Volunteerism, as it all too often gets discussed, is a classed ideal, and its valorization to the exclusion of other forms of service leads us to identify as community leaders primarily wealthy people who make contributions that require little sacrifice.

Absolutely, everyone should seek ways to use their time away from work to reduce injustice – though having students clean the windows of public schools together once a year is a less effective way to do that than having them get together and try to figure out why no one in their community is being hired to clean the schools’ windows and how that should be changed. But whether it’s community service or political advocacy, progressives do a disservice to our values and to our community when we valorize first the work that doesn’t pay (this is part of why I’m so excited about Students for a New American Politics).

In high school, when I led our school’s contingent to Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, we got T-shirts with Dr. King’s quote that “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” King was absolutely right. But his point is often misunderstood. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve,” he continues, “You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

King’s words are a much-needed reminder that we can best overcome divisions through shared projects of social justice. Unfortunately, just as imposing professional qualifications on service would render the ideal inaccessible to many people, imposing the requirement that service be uncompensated to be laudable reinforces already existing divisions. So does the claim made by too many liberals that social justice is about selfless acts for others by those with nothing to gain themselves. Such a definition will always privilege those who have less stake in their struggles and obscure those who take tremendous risks to fight for a stronger community for themselves and their neighbors.

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