Volunteerism is on the rise in St. Louis specifically, and in the U.S. in general. More people are spending more time doing more things they’re not paid to do. The same is true of financial giving. Though it is the 18th largest metropolitan region in the country, St. Louis is in the top ten of all United Way campaigns across the country. We are a city of givers.
And yet, in many ways, our city is in decline. We lost population in the most recent census. One quarter of city residents lives below the poverty line, most of them young children. The BBC recently reported on St. Louis being one of the most segregated cities in America. So, how are we to respond? The answer, I believe, lies in the way we measure success.
A recent blog post by a long-time social justice activist entitled “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” provides a good starting point for our need to rethink our metrics for service. We frequently think of “serving those in need” as a dynamic based on donor and recipient, servant and served, giver and taker, have and have-not. Therefore, nothing changes.
Every year, thousands of volunteers, both as individuals and in groups, come to serve at Kingdom House. They perform all sorts of needed duties, from building maintenance to running our food pantry. This has been the case for 110 years. Still, our neighborhood remains one of the lowest-income areas in the city. I met a man in the park not two blocks from our agency last week who had been living on the streets for seven months. He had never even heard of us. So, where are we going wrong? The nerd in me responds: Let’s see how Euclid might have thought about it.
The way we have measured the typical volunteer-client dynamic I mentioned has been on an x-axis: More volunteers, more hours, more projects, more cans donated, more Saturday service days scheduled. This quantitative approach to measurement of social change is easy to put in reports to the board. It provides cheerful numbers to email donors. It makes us feel good because we can see something growing. It also says nothing about long-term change in outlook, or about less racism, or about impacted hearts, or about growing righteous anger, or about real friendships between people who might otherwise never even come into contact with each other. These things can only be measured in terms of depth or height, on the y-axis.
A couple of months ago, I explained this concept to a group of Ignatian Volunteer Corps volunteers. Needless to say, it didn’t take much explaining. This approach is already completely integrated into the thought process of those who make such a bold commitment to creating authentic community with the marginalized. There is sometimes difficulty in relaying the impact of such an approach, but they understand.
So, why have I stopped serving the poor? Because I realized that I am the poor. I need others as much as they need me. When my wife and I moved back to St. Louis after a few years away, we were very intentional about moving into the city. We live in Kingdom House’s service area on purpose, not because it’s cheaper or hipper. When we started seeing the poverty in our own lives, we realized that we need others to help make us rich.
And that type of richness can only be measured in height and depth…on the y-axis.
Kenneth J. Pruitt is a teacher by trade, and the Director of Volunteer Management at Kingdom House, a social services agency founded during the settlement house movement. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted home. His wife is far more attractive and intelligent than he. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.