When We Appropriate Community Service

By Kwan Jin Yao

In the middle of a conversation at the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) last week, I asked whether there were plans to publicise the sector and its work. “With the interest in stories on the Internet”, I said, “could the NCSS feature social workers and the responsibilities they assume?”

We’ve tried, but it’s not easy”, she replied. “Getting them to pose for the camera is hard, and sharing about their stories is even harder”.

Their general apprehension seems understandable. What might appear to be an exceptional endeavour – working with at-risk youths, supporting the disadvantaged, empowering persons with disabilities – is business-as-usual for the social worker. Social work, beyond direct intervention, also involves extensive research, policy analysis, and general administration. “Social workers are present with people as listeners and beacons of hope”, Miss Ang Bee Lian, Director of Social Welfare at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, writes in a letter to social work students. “And because social workers often carry the sadness of people, caring and supporting each other is so important”. The roles are not necessarily glamorous, with sacrifices inevitably made.

Long-term volunteers, like these social workers, appreciate that outcomes matter more than outputs. Social change takes time and commitment, and is notoriously hard to measure. Yet on the other hand, far too often the rest of us are plagued by the Messiah complex, wondering how our voluntary contributions will “change lives” and “make a difference”. When I did my first volunteer stint, conducting four-week workshops and facilitating camps for youths, I kept thinking about the impact I had on these beneficiaries. Also needed to take photographs and record the activities, as evidence of our involvement.

Too silly and naïve la, Jin Yao.

Oh, and how self-serving we sounded vis-à-vis these social workers and volunteers. We liked to congratulate ourselves. A lot. In high school when we worked on a campaign to raise awareness of eating disorders and the importance of body image and self-esteem, cranking up the numbers was all I did. I was on an incredible roll: exhibitions and talks in schools, talkshows and workshops at the national libraries, media features in television programmes and the newspapers… The attendance rates, the affirmation we received, the positive feedback we got, all these were great for the service-learning competitions, but what did we actually do?

Somehow, it now unsettles when community service and its initiatives are valorised. Schools – like corporations – have incentives to appropriate projects, because they are proof of their civic-mindedness. But so much goes unchallenged. What happens when we do the same? Do we portray individuals to fit a predetermined narrative, one that benefits ourselves disproportionately? Are we clamouring to be recognised, to give ourselves public pats on the back? Perhaps in our well-intentioned anxieties to represent these individuals have we objectified them, and thereby lost sight of broader, structural challenges faced by the “needy”?

I suppose they unsettle because they remind me of my own inadequacies, my complicity – even in the present. When self-reflexivity is done properly should feel ashamed of yourself, right?

I don’t think such sensitivities can be developed through reading, at least not through someone’s account. After all, posts like this are often dismissed for being unfair and presumptuous – cue “not everyone is like that!” – self-indulgent and hypocritical. And quite rightly so. Experiences are lived, and interactions change people (and their intentions). Parts of my ignorance are chipped away when I speak to incredible people who dedicate their lives to causes, to others, and who labour steadily in the background.

And for someone brimming with arrogance – and who rarely shies away from the camera – they mean a lot.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 29 October 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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