If you were that little girl, Coles’ will absolutely not help. If you were ever in that situation or a similar one, you’ll find yourself wondering “who does this guy think he is? ” The perspective is a narrow and almost too obviously, an outsider’s point of view. For someone who spent so much of his life living “within” it’s interesting that a semi-autobiographical literary piece, still tells his story from “without” While many of Coles’ stories are inspirational, they lack the sociological support to make them anything more than that. Coles seems to think volunteering for the sake of volunteering is enough.
The book has an unnerving center around the pride volunteers might get from donating their time to the community, a community-but interestingly enough, a community other than their own. At the other end of the spectrum however, this drawback can be useful to us as public managers. I mentioned earlier that we have an innate professional motivation to “fix it”. This of course means that a lot of time we don’t see ourselves as part of the problem (or community) and already are fixed. I caution you to be cognizant of the mistake that Robert Coles and much of the volunteer community makes.
We can’t be managers with a birds eye view. These are our communities and I challenge all of you to consider yourselves a part of them-not as a servant just dropping by for a visit. Though Coles’ cause is admirable enough, the execution is poor. He only discusses isolated cases that do not depict an objective point of view. For example, Coles only refers to Ruby Bridges when discussing school desegregation. During the 1960’s many Black students were subjected to similar abuse and did not come our unscathed. Coles simply does not discuss them. He instead deals only in stories that support his ideology.
So, again, as modern society values profit over the needs of the community, A Call to Service fails to provide any solutions for diminishing community pride. This can’t be helped by a book promoting the “swoop in and fix it” ideology-that communities can’t do anything to help themselves. Coles’ book could be interpreted as pop psychology’s answers to complex social problems. With that said, Coles admits his mission in writing this book, as he explains in the introduction, is “to explore the ‘service’ we offer to others and, not incidentally, to ourselves.
I am hoping to document the subjectivity, the phenomenology of service: the many ways such activity is rendered; the many rationales, impulses, and values served in the implementation of a particular effort; the achievements that take place, along with the missteps and failures; the personal opportunities and hazards; and the consequences-how this kind of work fits into a life. ” Coles meant to make service subjective-and his perspective is that of an outsider as well as the Harvard students he interviews.
While he interviews Peace Corps members as well as volunteers in hospitals, schools, prisons, and nursing homes, the subjectivity of the viewpoint made it hard to see the book focused on much else other than young, aspiring Harvard students who are surprised to find self-fulfillment as they pad their resumes with benevolent acts of charity toward inner-city Blacks. To that extent, I recognize that the book’s central message was that volunteer work can have a transformative influence on those who heed the “call of service,” even though they frequently experience doubts, misgivings, depression, and even a sense of futility and despair.
2 Coles recognizes as well that there is a tension between the desire to effect change in a situation and the necessary respect for those who have had to endure the hardship of such situation and have learned to struggle and survive as best they can. He contends that whatever their good intentions may be, there will always be a hard-earned skepticism of outsiders. While I appreciate his understanding of this issue-I don’t feel he provides useful tools to manage it… which of course for us, is one of the book’s biggest drawbacks.
According to Coles, the satisfactions of service are plentiful and sustaining, conferring importance on small interactions and providing affirmation to those involved-often in place of lasting social or political change. He finds that the volunteers who are the most successful are those who genuinely like the people they meet, who quickly lose their sense that they are martyrs making a sacrifice and, most importantly, who realize that they are getting something in return. So Coles’ responds to my criticism in his own way.
Again and again, the stories do affirm the notion that service is not a hierarchy but a reciprocity in which the distinctions between the teacher and pupil, giver and receiver, helper and helped, public manager and publicly managed constantly dissolve. Coles invokes the words Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with a group of activist one night: “Let us not do to others (as our opponents) do to us: try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category-the virtuous ones as against the evil ones, or the decent ones against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated as against the ignorant.
” Dr. King, Coles, and I caution that “if the ‘us’ or ‘them’ mentality takes hold” then “we do, actually, begin to run the risk of joining ranks with the very people we are opposing,” and excluding the very people we set out to help. 1 All quotations derived from book subject to critique 2 This information refers to the editorial review including in the hardcover editions of The Call to Service.