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Critiques of Public Service Motivated by Selfishness

TO THE EDITORS

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Ariel Frank's "Students Question Services' Impact" (news story, Oct. 28) brings up important issues which deserve discussion in a public forum. As someone who has been working and volunteering in the Chinatown community for over three years through the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), I have often questioned my ability to effect change. However, Ms. Frank's article fails to cast substantial light on the subject, primarily due to broad generalizations and a consequent lack of depth.

The article begins with the personal narrative of an individual disappointed with her work in PBHA, but proceeds to use as the bulk of the subsequent evidence the experiences of activists in Harvard-Radcliffe Amnesty International. Without denigrating the work of this group or any other group dedicated to activism, there is a significant difference between social activism and social service. Writing letters protesting human rights violations does not provide the same qualitative experience to the volunteer as actual, direct contact with the beneficiary or "client." Although worthy and important, a group such as Amnesty International should not be classified as social "service."

The joys and disappointments of social service deserve separate, indepth treatment. I am personally very curious to hear other stories like that of both Professor Adiele and Ms. Tomlinson; I recall having conversations with directors of PBHA summer camps in which they expressed doubt about accomplishing much more than "keeping kids off the streets." Yet they felt even that much was a significant contribution to our world. I would also love to hear what the beneficiaries of our programs have to say. If the author wants to determine the efficacy of PBHA, it would behoove her to ask those whom we seek to serve.

I am surprised that the article does not mention Professor Robert Coles or his book, The Call of Service, which addresses the kinds of questions Ms. Frank is asking, particularly in the context of college students and Harvard specifically. While one may question the ability of student-run programs to effect broad social change, there is no question that the volunteer benefits, a fact which Professor Coles substantially documents.

Certainly, he or she develops greater sensitivity to issues of poverty and powerlessness, an empathy people expected to be the future leaders of the world can never have too much of. The act of service nurtures that idealism which lies at the heart of our "call to service," a call too often drowned out by the sirens of money and power.

In the end I cannot agree with the cynicism of Professor Adiele, whose opinions were given unfortunate prominence in this article. The critique of social service which comes from both the political right and the academic left are rooted in the identical motive of selfishness; it is all too easy to sit in the ivory tower and await revolution rather than go out in the trenches and help where help is needed. What she and those like her need is that faith which drives those of us who remain committed to our work: faith not only that what we do is important, but that we do it for the right reasons. --Gene Koo '97

Editor's note: Frank attempted multiple times to contact Coles the week before the article was printed. Coles did respond, but Frank was unable to reach him before the article went to print.

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