Saturday, January 19, 2013

National Day of Service: How it works on the National Mall

Early Saturday morning, the Washington DC media (especially NBC4) and CNN talked about the National Day of Service activities in Washington DC, without very clear explanations of how it worked or what people do.  The president was shown volunteering in an elementary school in Washington DC (Michelle Rhee’s former territory) making repairs.  This was “grab a hammer time”.

Furthermore, there were mentions on CNN this morning as to whether "national service" should become "mandatory".  

This afternoon, I did go to the Mall, and with some asking, found out how it worked.  You had to go to one line at a small tent on the Independence Avenue side, and register.  “They” asked for you name, phone number, zip code, and email address.  It sounded a little pushy.  But “you” get a time ticket to go to the big tent.  I wasn’t that busy, and I went right in at around 3 PM. 
I did see a large array of organizations, on matters arranging from health, schools, the Red Cross, veterans and families, environment, and a curious effort called “Community Resilience”.
I asked what that was, if it was related to recovering from Hurricane Sandy or similar disasters, and she said, no, it was just about local community projects.  Maybe it is about preparation for disasters. (I;ve covered some of the controversies over volunteering and Sandy on the main blog, Nov. 17, 2012). 
The environmental station featured an organization called “Roots and Shoots”.
At the Red Cross station, people were learning CPR (which I learned at work in Dallas in 1983 while working for Chillton  -- of course, it’s changed).
Some stations seemed to be collecting “pledges” – of “hours”, not money.  The atmosphere (or "tone") felt a bit coercive. 
There is a site where “you” can find out projects in your own city.  It’s called “All for Good”, link   Many of the projects seem to be more about social capital than accomplishing anything “big”.

I get the feeling that this is all about local social cohesion and preparedness – and a mindset that major dislocations (from storms, terrorism, environmental disasters) cannot be prevented now.  That’s disturbing. 
In any case, it’s important when volunteering to make sure there is a fit with what the person does in the rest of his or her life.

I do find that many organizations with volunteers become bureaucratic.  They become empires for the people that run them.

Here's "libertarian" advice: It may be better to look for service opportunities with connections you know (rather than in big organizations with "government" connections).  For example, many churches organize summer trips to developing countries for service work.  For high school and college students, these are tremendous opportunities to learn, see, and develop people skills in different cultures.  I I could be 17 again, I would jump at that.  And college students can consider service projects overseas for first jobs (they look great on resumes later).  There is a big need for engineers for water projects now. Some of these are run by faith-based organizations. 
I also visited the DC Armory briefly today, because the media had mentioned it.  When I got there, I was told that about 1000 volunteers (that sounds like a stretch) had assembled about 100,000 care packages for military and National Guard families.   I suppose given my past history with “don’t ask don’t tell” that could have made sense.

On the way to the Armory, on the Orange Line, away from "civilization", I saw a little boy, African American, with "National Day of Service" stickers on both his jacket and forehead.  No -- taking a picture wouldn't be fair.  But that does sound "coercive" and manipulative. 
I’ll keep “you” posted on what I can do about this personally.  (Sorry – English doesn’t distinguish between personal and impersonal “you” the way French does.  We don’t have a “thy” anymore. )  Seriously, I'd like any effort to which I give my time (at age 69) add "value" (in a knowledge sense, not fiscal) to what I already do.  And I prefer "prevention" to adaptation.  

Chelsea Clinton spoke about a “chain of service linking all Americans” (link).  This is not something government should try to manage. 

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