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Starting from the Margins: The Ethics of Relational Service

Reflections on the recent service-learning program with youth from Guilford Park Presbyterian Church

Naomi Madaras, Program Coordinator

Much of service learning is about relationship. Often, students and group leaders come to DC expecting to form an instant relationship with marginalized community members, right off the bat (one might imagine handing a cup of hot soup in exchange for the gratitude of a neighbor experiencing homelessness). But these expectations are fraught with paternalist assumptions and can perpetuate a savior mentality among the students and chaperones toward community members. When students arrive to William Penn House we try to help them understand that service in the Quaker tradition must be relationship-based if it is to be ethical. When I say that, what I mean is in order for us to be accountable to our community, we have to let go of our expectations, especially our expectations of gratitude from others. Service-learning is a complicated method—one that depends on humility, flexibility, self-reflection, and imagination. Above all, service learning depends on listening.

Recently, we hosted a group of middle-schoolers from Guilford Park Presbyterian Church for a 2-day program that embodied relational service-learning. One afternoon, several youth volunteered with Capitol Hill Village, a nonprofit neighborhood organization that assists senior citizens to remain in their homes as long as possible. Twelves young people visited a senior apartment complex a few blocks north of William Penn House and divided into small groups to hand out medical deactivation kits provided by Capitol Hill Village. Residents could use to these charcoal-based kits to safely dispose of expired medication. With one pair of youth per senior on each floor of the complex, the students got to know their senior leader as they placed a kit on each doormat. Unprompted, they asked questions like, “What’s your favorite thing about living in DC?”, “What do you like to do in your free time?” and “How many people live in the building with you?” Afterward the entire group gathered in the common room where the youth and seniors mingled, talking about museums, music, board games, and the best snacks from the vending machines.

What was unique about this service program is the lack of expectations. Instead of arriving to the site expecting to make instant relationships based on others’ gratitude, these inspiring students simply came to distribute medical deactivation kits. There’s nothing particularly rewarding or Kodak-worthy about putting a kit on someone’s doorstep, but this was a request from Capitol Hill Village, our partner organization, and we listened to their call. In the midst of following that request, the students had a chance to talk with people sixty years their senior—people who had extremely different lives than they did. The students from Guilford Park were almost entirely white American, and the seniors entirely Black and African-American, and mostly women. The seniors responded enthusiastically to the students’ questions and invited them back any time they were in the area. Even after two hours of chatting, the group did not want to separate and reluctantly bid each other farewell.

This is the kind of relational service-learning we at William Penn House envision for all our groups. We seek to begin with the marginal, menial, and important work that receives no applause and develops no instant fuzzy feelings. Sometimes this is all a service program can be, for multiple reasons. But groups that are ready to begin at the margins can more easily develop humility and patience and only from that place can we build relationships with partner organizations and community members. We must remember that relationships, like plants, cannot grow unless we have adequately prepared the soil. And that preparation takes patience, humility, and deep listening.

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