According to the Oxford English Dictionary, community service is volunteer work intended to help people in a particular area. High school students in Ontario are required to perform a certain amount of community-based volunteering. Some criminal sentences include a community service component. A lot of people from all walks of life choose to volunteer their time and talents as a rewarding way to give back to their community.
How effective is community service in its goal of helping people in a community?
The best examples I’ve seen and been involved with actively include representative members of the community, especially those who have the most to potentially gain from the service. Soup kitchens and community drop-ins that are served by a mix of people who benefit directly from the service and people who are happy to provide labour and coaching where they’re needed. One of the key aspects of highly involved community service is the desire to watch, listen, and learn from the people you want to help.
It’s not always possible to involve people who benefit from the service in the work. Perhaps specialized skills are needed to provide services like health care or legal advice. Maybe the people in need of assistance don’t have the resources to spend on volunteer work. These types of service can still be highly effective by developing and maintaining an understanding of the community being helped and by using a structured approach. This past April, the city of Toronto used volunteers including many staff directly involved in providing services to the homeless to conduct a survey to better understand homelessness and the needs of people experiencing housing precarity throughout the city. Information gained from this survey will be used by government and social services agencies to better focus efforts to address both the causes and the effects of homelessness.
The further the connection to community is from the service provider, the less effective the service tends to be. User-focused research helps considerably, but it’s not always done effectively or even at all. I’ve attended hackathons and activist meetings where some of the solutions being proposed by groups with a strong sense of community interest seem completely disconnected from the communities these well-intentioned groups want to help.
Do the people you want to protect need education on how to make themselves safer, or are changes to other aspects of the systems they interact with a prerequisite?
Can the people you want to reach understand your language?
What assumptions are you making about the conditions, experiences, and needs of the people whose lives you want to improve?
Is it possible for people to provide meaningful community service even when they don’t fully understand the community? Yes, and it’s not a certainty.
Please don’t throw your hands up in frustration that you feel called out for whatever project gives you a sense of doing good. Examine your work, as you would any skill under development. Seek out feedback on the results of your effort. It may not be easy at first, but taking the time to periodically question whether your community service is having the effect you intend and honestly answer that question will improve your impact on the community and your sense of purpose and accomplishment.