Case Western Reserve University students have a lot of stereotypes, ranging from our abundance of majors and minors to the awkwardness of our STEM students. We are known for being overwhelmed with work and extracurriculars. Unfortunately, we are also known for our apathy. We are involved, but we are not engaged. We attend, but we are not present.
Before moving forward, we can take a moment to acknowledge the many students who are actively engaged with our community, and do so in a mutually-empowering way that does not promote saviorism or perpetuate negative stereotypes. These students have broken out of the “Case bubble.” However, we unfortunately feel that these students are in the minority.
Most CWRU students have never heard of the nearby Hough, Glenville and Fairfax neighborhoods, despite bordering University Circle. Instead, we typically venture to Little Italy or Coventry for our adventures, while branding East Cleveland as a dangerous and problematic city to avoid. We cannot ignore that the Hough, Glenville and Fairfax communities and East Cleveland are predominately Black, while Little Italy and Coventry are predominately white.
Yet, every year another group of students matriculate to CWRU and are told by orientation leaders, police, tour guides and fellow students where we should and shouldn’t go. Not only does this perpetuate negative stereotypes about local neighborhoods and residents, but it also alienates CWRU students who grew up in Cleveland.
The way we view Cleveland inherently affects our relationship with the community. Little Italy and Coventry are perceived as “fun,” and thus do not need changing. However, East Cleveland, Hough, Glenville and Fairfax are perceived as “dangerous” communities where we will get mugged, and thus they need us to come fix the problem.
What is the problem?
The problem is centuries of systemic racism and oppression. It is redlining, liquorlining and failing to invest in education, safe housing and healthy environments for communities of color. And these problems are not going to be fixed by individual volunteer actions.
Short-term charitable work can be important, but it can also perpetuate problems when done with the wrong approach or attitude. It can ignore the systemic issues which continue cyclic underinvestment and suppression of the assets of these neighborhoods, including the amazing qualities and skills of residents.
Many CWRU students are destined for medical school or are pursuing another professional degree. The applications these students will have to fill out—and resumes in general—search for well-rounded students who “like helping people” and volunteer in their free time. On the one hand, we can say that perhaps these requirements encourage students to be more involved. Unfortunately, on the other hand, it heavily promotes a “check-the-boxes” mentality where students only attend meetings or volunteer for their own personal gain. This practice needs to end.
Service projects and volunteer work are not always a good thing. When people’s intentions are wrong and they enter spaces with preexisting bias—conscious or not—the volunteer work can be detrimental to its “clients” and the community.
This issue not only concerns CWRU students but also some faculty and staff, which led to the creation of the Office of Student Community Service in 1994—known since 2005 as the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning (CCEL). The office was originally limited by grant funding through the federal government and organizations like AmeriCorps. The structural and name changes in 2005 opened up more possibilities for doing advocacy work and other forms of social justice organizing.
A few years later, then-President Barbara Snyder collaborated with CCEL to create the Civic Engagement Scholars program, which promotes engagement, education and reflection. During a normal, non-COVID year, scholars are required to do 50 hours of local engagement, 20 of which must be with the same community partner, attend certain educational events and complete some written or verbal reflection. The program is entirely voluntary, so no student is required to participate nor must they stay in the program if they find they can no longer make the commitment.
In many ways, the CCEL Scholars program encourages students to take their volunteer work a step further. Many students who are already doing volunteer work—authentically or otherwise—join the scholars program and are then faced with a variety of events that may challenge their preexisting notions of volunteer work and expand their understanding of civic engagement.
CCEL Director Betsy Banks said, “We want to do everything we can to dismantle hierarchies and paternalism which can be perpetuated if we don’t do community service the right way.” Banks mentioned that responsible, effective and meaningful interactions are constantly a concern of CCEL staff. She elaborated on the idea that volunteer work can be harmful if we fail to consider the deeper issues of the language we use, the assumptions we make and how we go about building relationships. As such, CCEL holds programs and discussions around the best practices for ethically and sustainably engaging with the community.
Some people have suggested to Banks that the program—or some form of community engagement—be mandatory for all students. However, this requirement would likely only further promote the checkbox mentality and turn volunteering into an arbitrary academic requirement. And some people are just not ready to be engaged. Instead, Banks emphasizes CCEL Scholars as a path for students from all different understandings of responsible engagement to learn more about themselves as well as social justice.
There may inevitably be some CCEL Scholars who are transactional in their intentions, only participating so they can list it on their medical school applications. However, as long as they are continuing to attend the educational components of the scholars program, there’s a chance this could change. In some respects, we can appreciate the “checkbox” volunteering of some students, too, as they are taking the first step of showing up within the community, but it’s important we encourage them to take their engagement to the next level.
“We don’t need to somehow scan scholars to see if someone is transactional,” Banks said. She commented that CCEL is encouraged by the desire of over 400 students to participate in the program each year, and “wants to build students’ ability to self-reflect and engage more.”
This has indeed been successful for some students. Banks recalls students who join the program for the wrong reasons and fail to really engage with their volunteer work, but then a speaker or some time spent reflecting will encourage the students to open their minds. “We plant the seeds that students can further develop,” Banks stated. For example, students begin to recognize they were taking a deficit-based approach to community service, rather than volunteering with an asset-based, social justice lens.
Like all areas of our lives, how we act and engage with the community is our choice. We can decide where on the spectrum of relational to transactional we want to be. Banks emphasized what college is for most of us: a time to grow and evolve. We do this through our academics of course, but there is also an opportunity for us to do this through our engagement. We can break out of the “Case bubble” and forgo beliefs of Cleveland as just an impoverished and crime-ridden city to instead view the local communities from an asset lens that highlights all the residents have to offer.
We all know students who participate in service; many of them are genuine in their intentions, but some are transactional. Some volunteers are only there to check boxes. While this can be unequivocally depressing, we can also look at the silver lining that Banks has experienced through the scholars program: there is the opportunity to learn and grow. Our mindset when we start college doesn’t have to be our mindset when we graduate.
The CCEL office is a remarkable haven within the university that offers students the opportunity to step back and reflect on our impact and power. We do belong to an institution that has shaped Cleveland—for better and worse—for the better part of a century. There are a lot of organizations in Cleveland that would love volunteer help, but we need to consider how we approach these situations and how we treat the people we work with. If we don’t, we can easily harm the community more than we help it. There is more to volunteering and engagement than just showing up.
Finally, we need to remember that we have a responsibility to hold other students accountable even outside the CCEL office. Banks highlighted that while CCEL can provide resources and avenues to engage with the community, “peer-to-peer is where most of the change will happen.” Students are persuaded most by their peers. Next time you and your friends are discussing a part of Cleveland or your time at the homeless shelter, stop and think about your intentions, the language you’re using and your mindset. And the next time you’re looking for a place to walk around, consider Hough, Glenville or Fairfax, instead of defaulting to the predominately white streets.