Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Unscathed "Service"

Over the years, I’ve volunteered with and served on the boards of several non-profit organizations. I also volunteer at my child’s school. Recently, each group –and I mean each and every group– has had difficulty finding individuals willing to serve as officers and difficulty building membership. And fundraising? That has gone beyond difficult to nearly impossible.

Today’s hypothesis? Community mindedness is not an identifying feature of The Unscathed Generation.

Don’t get me wrong. We give money and time. But, at least in my experience, that giving is motivated by one of two things: tax benefits and the possibility of a direct, positive effect on the volunteer’s/donor’s live.

When I look at the plaques that grace the entrances of public buildings here in my city, the names of board members or capital campaign leaders are usually familiar ones. But those names belong almost exclusively to our parents’ cohort. These men and women apparently put a great deal of effort, when they were close to my age, in making sure that those less fortunate had access to the kind of facilities and services that they took for granted.

Now I’m not totally naïve. Their service paid off for them in tangible ways: increased business, prestige, political capital. And it certainly wasn’t a function of their liberal political leanings as the vast majority form a solidly conservative voting bloc (despite their disapproval of the Republican Party’s subservience to the religious right). I’m also aware (although I don’t entirely understand) that, at the time most of these buildings were built, economic factors were far more favorable to such projects that they are now.

Family structures were different, as well. Kids had one, maybe two, after school activities. Our parents did not have as many balls in the air as my friends and I do (three kids can equal up to six sports leagues’ practices and games, three or more music/dance/art lessons, church activities for those who participate in a congregation, tutoring, etc.) Fortunate families often had close to full time help; women did not have to work to keep things afloat. And, yes, I know that a good part of this was directly related to economic realities and social mores that were, at root, unjust.

But, somehow, community building was a responsibility this generation took seriously.

Why don’t we?

Some see the social and political consequences of me-attitudes that took root in the Reagan Era and spread like kudzu. And there’s truth to that. But I believe a larger part of the answer lies in the lack of community identity I wrote about last night. I know that my life feels increasingly rushed, isolated, and compartmentalized. People seem to choose one smaller community, of which they are members, and focus entirely on improving it; in this part of the country it is a church, more often than not. Energy that, in the past, might have resulted in a state-of-the-art YMCA, open to all, leads instead to six different congregations boasting “Family Life Centers” bursting with gyms, media rooms, and amazing kitchen facilities enjoyed only by members. It seems to me that every hour spent serving a closely defined community to the exclusion of those with no access to its benefits – even if that lack of access is a function of choice rather than explicit exclusion - is an hour of self-interest.

I am guilty as charged. In fact, I’m about to resign from a board as soon as I finish this entry. My 85-year-old mother is ill, and my seven-year-old child is vigorous. Without the energy of a twenty-something and daily household help, I must choose between home and the greater community where service is concerned. The best I can do is find an outlet where my efforts will have a positive outcome for other families, not just mine. Right now, that means I spend a lot of time at the elementary school and on committees related to school district issues. My heart longs to spend time with Planned Parenthood and the local library. But my clock doesn’t have enough hours.

Does yours?


Misty said...

I completely agree with your contention that the lack of community-mindedness is hurting us. I also have a theory about this. I think the busy-ness that we have is not accidental. Where do we get the cultural messages that our children must be active in sports, art, music, language, etc., etc. in order to be well-rounded? And who do you think is expected to ensure that they are at the cost of ourselves? When women have the time, they end up doing nasty little things like consciousness raising groups, MADD, running for office and other frightening displays of power. If we're too busy to build community and become isolated, we are contained. That may sound paranoid but let me just say that Susan Faludi got it right.

The other part of this is that in losing our actual communities, we lose our sense of responsibility for the lives of others. So many people seem to think that because their lives are good, then others can just go jump in a lake. If the "Greatest Generation" had felt like that, we might all be speaking German or Japanese.

Kelly Hudgins said...

Wise response! Backlash indeed.