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What Kind of Day Has it Been?

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
September 20, 2018 Anthony Butler University of Baltimore
Reimagining Day of Service Programs

Day of service events are commonplace on University campus. For many, these are traditional events held each year that create space for students to contribute to their community in the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. At their best, they can develop deep and meaningful bonds between institutions and communities. In some cases, however, these events can be come stale, systematic affairs, where participants go through the motions of service without deeply understanding their surroundings or reflecting on their work. Some institutions have eliminated day of service events altogether, opting to invest in more reflective and learning-focused experiences such as service-learning projects and alternative breaks.

Many feel, and rightly so, that these events do not effectively engage students in civic action. University of Baltimore’s signature service event, Community Service Day, is a prime example. An annual tradition, held each April since 2002, Community Service Day is a mainstay at UB. It’s a part of the fabric of campus. Anywhere from 150-200 students, staff, faculty, and alumni participate each year, serving at one of 12-15 sites throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County. Over the years, however, enthusiasm for the event has waned, and assessment data is not encouraging. After Community Service Day 2017, participants were asked to “describe a community problem or issue you noticed related to your service experience and briefly identify a possible solution to that problem.” Of those who completed surveys, 33% did not answer the question. Another 53% supplied an answer that was unclear or incomplete based on the evaluation rubric. Only 13% of those surveyed were able to describe a community issue and suggest a possible solution. We have followed emerging research and trends on day of service events, and considered how Community Service Day fits in to the nationwide call to civic action. Our assessment validated our concerns that this event was no longer meeting the needs of the campus or the community. For Community Service Day to continue, it needed to change.

The assessment data was clear: Participants did not value the service they performed, or understand the communities with which they worked. We needed to root this event in reflective practices, develop a greater sense of purpose, and build a stronger relationship between participants and communities. We addressed this in three ways:

  1. Frame the day: Previous service days usually included remarks of welcome from a campus leader, a bit of team building, and announcement about the day’s work. For 2018, we invited a speaker to come to campus and provide greater context for the day. Our featured speaker was Van Brooks, Executive Director of SAFE Alternatives Foundation for Education and Director of the (Maryland) Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism. Mr. Brooks provided his perspective on the value of service in his community work and why engagement is so important.
  2. Reimagine Site Leader role: Like many large service days, this event involved a number of service sites. Reflection was conducted by site leaders at each site. Since the site leaders were volunteers, and did not receive specialized training, the quality of that reflection was inconsistent. Because our office organizes orientation, we were able to expand the Orientation Leader role to include Community Service Day (our Orientation Leaders provide support to a number of events throughout the semester). Orientation leaders are trained in a variety of protocols and are comfortable with group facilitation. They were able to provide consistent and stable leadership for each site, and conducted meaningful reflection. Because they serve in a paid position, they were also more accountable in their roles.
  3. Involve Sites in Preflection: As we looked at previous Community Service Days, we noticed a pattern among our most successful sites. Those sites had a staff member meet with participants prior to service and explain the mission of the organization - its purpose and its role in effecting community change. For 2018, we requested that all of our sites make a similar presentation (about 10 minutes) to emphasize the importance of their organization and their community-based work.
  4. Create an ethic of engagement: From arrival and check-in, through the opening session, during preflection and reflection, we worked with our team and partners to communicate that service is not just about one day. Community Service Day would not be defined as a celebration of service. It would be the beginning of an ongoing commitment to civic engagement. Participants are provided with a list of organizations with contact information, and are encouraged to follow up with their organization after Community Service Day to continue serving. They are engaged in discussion following the event about what they noticed and appreciated about the communities where they worked, and how they can continue to engage in those communities through partnership.

While overall participation in Community Service Day continues to be a challenge, these changes did make a significant impact in our assessment of the 2018 event. Once again, we asked participants to  “describe a community problem or issue you noticed related to your service experience and briefly identify a possible solution to that problem.” This time, 38% of respondents were able to adequately answer that question based on our rubric. While this was more than twice the 2017 number, we are looking at additional improvements for his event. We are looking at ways to replicate our success with more academically based sites (for example, an environmental science professor leads a group to the Jones Falls to explore the local ecology while cleaning up trash and waste throughout the area). We are reaching out to classes and student groups to develop a coalition of committed participants. We are continuing to build partnerships with sites to ensure the experience is meaningful for them and results in greater levels of participant engagement. We envision a signature program that represents the university’s commitment to community, and nurtures students’ passion for civic action.