Contrary to popular imagination, community service is not an “alternative sentence” if Paris is caught littering, pot smoking, or not cleaning up after her dog. Nor is it a “civic duty” for uncreative, earnest, and holier than thou people who criticize your paper towel usage. And it certainly isn’t part of the so-called "new era of volunteerism"; a thinly veiled way for the U.S. government to shift the burden of social services onto citizens so they could spend our tax money on war.
It’s time to redefine community service and shake off the tired old Peace Corps image. Here are a few organizations that expand and illuminate this field. This is community service in its most inspired form. Here's a new definition: community service is sharing what we know in a way we love with strangers. Ask yourself, now what can I do?
Tim Rollins and KOS
Tim Rollins has perhaps singlehandedly changed the concept of what teaching art can be. Since 1980 he has worked collaboratively with "learning disabled" students from the South Bronx in NY to make art that is shown at contemporary art centers in the U.S. and Europe. Rollins and KOS (Kids of Survival) states succinctly: "What we're doing changes people's conception about who can make art, how art is made, who can learn and what's possible, because a lot of these kids had been written off by the school system. This is our revenge."
The process begins innocently enough. Rollins selects a work of literature to focus on for a semester. The sources are diverse: Brecht, Burroughs, Shakespeare, comic books, Alice in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X have all been starting points. He brings the text into class and reads it aloud. His students draw what it brings to mind. They bring their work together, collaboratively choose a few resonant visual motifs, and build the work collaboratively from there. The final work may present itself as prints, large-scale murals, and collages. Sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract: always an unmediated response to the work itself rather than some prescribed notion of how the work "should" be illustrated or what art is. See more...
The Icarus Project
The Icarus Project is a radical health collective that "envisions a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of 'mental illness' rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework." The often-stigmatizing medical model advocates pathologizing, suppressing and elimination as the answer to mental health issues. The Icarus Project sees possibilities through a more holistic enterprise of education, participation and dialogue to understand this difference, a model where western medicine is one component of a larger solution.
It is a grassroots organization with local groups supported by a small national staff. Begun by Ashley and Sascha (the founders chose to only use their first names) in 2002, both of who are bipolar and were frustrated with being treated as having a "disease" that needed to be "cured." They wrote the original mission statement in an old tree in Northern California on Halloween. The Icarus Project has been present to help with the aftermath of Virginia Tech, have published books and established a thriving web community.
The Edible Schoolyard
The Edible Schoolyard is a non-profit gardening and cooking program at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, California. The program is integrated into the life of the school where the "gardening classroom" is a hands-on lesson in ecology and the "kitchen classroom" transforms the raw organic seasonal produce into, well, lunch. It brings cooking back into the picture as a social and vital part of life. And it brings awareness to the importance of the cycle of food. The program is available to every child at King Middle School.
This program began in 1994, growing out of a conversation between renowned chef Alice Waters and King Middle School Principal Neil Smith who then collaborated with teachers and community members. Students and teachers transformed an old parking lot by removing asphalt, weeds, and debris and then planting a soil-enriching cover crop.
It is held as the model for programs nationally that attempts to replicate this program for students within their local ecosystem and begin to return to a raw direct experience of food. It's an elegant strategy to fight back against processed foods' stranglehold on children's diets that has led to an explosion of previously unheard of levels of childhood health issues such as obesity and diabetes.