In May 2017, the University’s Service and Civic Engagement Steering Committee hosted a gathering entitled “Celebrating Service,” an event that inspired criticism in the form of a Daily Princetonian article cleverly titled “Celebrating Complacency.”

I found this article justified in its harsh critique of the self-congratulatory speech delivered by our University president. The event’s uncomfortable, ostentatious atmosphere should have led any thinking bystander to question, “If this is ‘celebrating service,’ how exactly are we defining that term?” I agree that it is hard to imagine a world in which “academic excellence” and “research of unsurpassed quality” qualify as service in and of themselves. The event shared few stories, offered no serious reflections (much less critical ones), and issued no calls to action or university reform.

Photo by David Brashear

Despite my agreement with many of its points, I want to criticize this article for its failure to recognize that this “celebration,” especially the author’s characterization of it, is not representative of service at Princeton. This was a single event (clearly with faculty and administrators as its primary audience) that cannot be used as the basis of criticism toward service at Princeton, or even institutional claims about service at Princeton. To use it as such works against the ways in which service is addressed on this campus. It serves as yet another example of anti-institutional generalizations that plague many campus conversations and fail to recognize students’ efforts to hold the University responsible for its goals and rhetoric—and the role that other students have played in undermining them.

In 2016, the president and trustees of the University identified “reinforcing Princeton’s commitment to service” as a top institutional priority. This priority was declared in the University’s “Strategic Framework,” a report and plan that focuses on four key questions, two of which relate directly to service and civic engagement: “What must we do to make service central to the mission of the University?” and “How can Princeton enable more undergraduate and graduate students to contribute to the world?”

When describing the University’s “commitment to service,” the report reads:

“Princeton should reinforce in its students an appreciation for the value of service as well as the skills and habits of mind needed to serve effectively.”

“The commitment to service is not ultimately about what vocation or avocation one pursues, but how one pursues it.”

In this context, these quotes seem benign enough. To many of us they may even seem encouraging—an institutional recognition of the University’s responsibility to the outside world and to the formation of graduates who are outward-looking and other-serving. 

Photo taken at community event at The Conservatory Mansion, one of many Community Action’s community partners.

However, when translated into everyday university life, these goals become elusive, even dangerous. What does “service” mean in the context of a student’s life at Princeton? Is the University’s renewed emphasis on it simply, as one article in The Princeton Progressive aptly phrased it, one more means of “preempting protest” or more “uncivil” responses to structural injustices? Others have claimed that service, as it is practiced by many on this campus, is merely a channel through which students can ease any discomfort they feel about their own privilege without engaging in the types of social change that break down the systems that perpetuate such disparities.

I myself have asserted that characterizing service as “how one pursues” something weakens students’ sense of social responsibility and allows them to pursue without second thought whatever end they desire, as long as they have good intentions. Even more precisely regarding these goals, I and others have worried about the danger of the word “reinforcing” and its suggestion that Princeton has no need to change in any significant way, but rather only to strengthen the foundations it has already laid.

This spring and summer I had the opportunity to coordinate the Pace Center’s Community Action program in Trenton. I am going to use CA as the vehicle through which I describe and analyze service at Princeton because it is a program that facilitates the largest volume of student engagement (600 first-year students, in addition to over 100 student leaders) with the Pace Center, one of the central locations for service opportunities on campus, and sees one of its aims to be “introducing students to service at Princeton” and how they, as students, can “do service well.”

Through this planning experience, I was reaffirmed in my belief that the CA program is imperfect, and that service at Princeton is imperfect. In fact, the whole concept of service is imperfect because it is incomplete. At risk of becoming overly whimsical, through my experiences, I have learned that the best form of service is service that ceases to be service in any formal way at all—it is genuine friendship, specifically friendship across perceived barriers—socioeconomic, linguistic, geographic.

In order to foment those types of relationships that are paradigm-shifting and world-opening, the CA program, and Princeton as a whole, relies on community partners. As a CA coordinator, I went to community partners (whom I was trained to view as “co-educators”) who shared their expertise and welcomed me into their communities. And, along the way, I tried to ensure that students would visit these communities and bring a few resources along with them—whether it was their time, their knowledge, their patience, their physical strength, or a package of Expo markers.

Where this “Celebrating Complacency” article (and the broader critical conversation) misses the mark is in its unexamined, even parenthetical dismissal of the term “community partner” as something that could not be anything other than ironic alongside a university as well-endowed as Princeton. Princeton’s relationship to community partners is the key not only to the logistical functioning of service opportunities at the University but to its entire claim to ethical forms of service and volunteerism. These partners are the vehicles through which Princeton, removed in so many ways from the community of Trenton (and, for that matter, from the “hidden” communities only a few blocks from Nassau Street), engages with community voices and allows communities themselves to define their own strengths and needs. By dismissing the potential for meaningful community partnership and, by extension, dismissing service at Princeton in general by pointing to power dynamics, we fail to recognize the agency of these community partners. We fail to recognize that these partners choose to attend campus events, participate in programs like Community Action, and engage with Princeton students as volunteers at all.

That is to say, by dismissing the phrase “community partner” as irony, we fail to see community partners as individuals and organizations with their own agency, who view Princeton students as individuals who have easier access to institutional forms of power, and who want to educate them. In my conversations this summer, I heard community partners say that they believed that any knowledge or experience they share with students has the potential to be amplified due to the existence of the same systems of power that they simultaneously try to strip of their racial and socioeconomic and geographic barriers. And places like the Pace Center help to create the platforms and spaces for this community-based form of education to happen.

This is the foundation I speak from when I speak or write about service, and I struggle to accept arguments that criticize service from a purely administrative perspective here at Princeton. What places like the Pace Center preach about doing service well—namely, “humility, gratitude, empathy, and respect” and the need for service to be relational—cannot be forced. The relationship between Princeton (specifically, organizations like the Pace Center) and community partners is two-way, and students must recognize the critical role they play in fostering those relationships.

Yes, more students should also be critically aware of when and how phrases like “in the service of humanity” are used and speak out when the careless use of this word “service” threatens to strip it—and the University’s mission—of their meaning. However, perhaps more students should also recognize the power of the fact that Princeton tells first-years, many of whom are wide-eyed and expectant, that service is important.

Perhaps more students should recognize when maybe, just maybe, the use of the word “service” is apt.

The only way to have a full, meaningful dialogue around service is to have conversations with those who supposedly feel its effects, positive or negative. While conversations about identity, race, class, and power dynamics within this campus are highly valuable, to make this conversation about service, one must take this conversation outside campus. It is necessary to have conversations about service with individuals who are not connected with this university in any formal way and can help all of us, as campus affiliates, see ourselves outside of ourselves and recognize our own position in the University−community partner service relationship.

Where can students have these conversations? During the service opportunities themselves, through the Pace Center or otherwise.

The response to the Celebrating Service event springs from a general cynicism toward any claim by the University to serve the common good. It represents a healthy criticism toward any use of the word “service” without defining it or elaborating upon what this term means in its specific context. “Service” is a loaded word. It can be associated with either a paternalistic attempt to “give back” or share resources with the “less fortunate,” or it can be taken to mean something that is broader and more compelling—a commitment to justice through the formation of personal relationships.

I spent one of my evenings of CA week sharing a meal with a group that had invited the partners they met that afternoon to an unplanned dinner. The conversations ranged from anime, to Donald Trump, to gentrification, to public art and favorite foods—and three hours quickly passed without either group making effort to leave. This type of conversation and my sharing of this scene has the real potential to be nothing more than an empty symbol—a nice scene from a single week of a program made up of students who may never set foot in Trenton again. But the existence and reproduction of this scene is also an invitation: those students may return, host open mic nights at the partners’ cafe, actually attend the events on the flyers they were given, and strengthen the relationships that began that night.

Thanks to Princeton, the opportunity was created for the students—but the rest? That’s on them.