Last week, Hopkins began our largest community service project, the annual Canned Food Drive.
It’s presented as a way for students to give back to Connecticut communities, as the student body spends thousands of weekend hours raising money to reduce hunger around the state.
But while the CFD is well-intended, when the premier community service undertaking of our school consists primarily of students standing on street corners and asking mostly affluent pedestrians for money, then something has gone wrong. When student fundraising is largely encouraged via a competition between grades and not through a call to help those in need, then the CFD has become a way for Hopkins to make an effort at charity, but without engaging in any difficult conversations. It’s a problem when one of the chief impetuses for our major community service event is a petty competition between classes.
To be sure, the Connecticut Food Bank provides critical service to hundreds of thousands of low income residents of our state, and the $40,000-80,000 that we raise each year is nothing to scoff at. I am not arguing that the initiative be torn down and replaced. Rather, I believe that some of the thousands of hours and immense amounts of energy directed at getting students to solicit as many donations as possible from passersby should be redirected. People’s time could potentially be put to better use.
Now, this should not be construed as an attack on the work of the Student Council. The CFD is a herculean effort made possible through the hard work and dedication of students, and essentially students alone. But while StuCo does an excellent job operating within the system we currently have, the system itself could use some improvement.
I am not the only one who feels this way. In the past month, I have spoken to faculty, students, parents, and members of Student Council, many of whom agreed that the way we’ve been doing things could do with a little rethinking. Katherine Takoudes ’20, Junior Class President, told me she wished Hopkins “could have a more direct connection with the Food Bank, by contributing to the in-person programs it offers, such as the Mobile Pantry, where volunteers distribute food to local communities.”
Two concerns consistently came up in these conversations. The first is: “What about the money?” Street-corner fundraising collects around $20,000-$50,000 each year, so placing less emphasis on it would lead to less money going to the Food Bank. To be clear, I do not believe the Connecticut Food Bank’s budget should be diminished. Therefore, I think Hopkins could replace the missing individual donations with money from the school budget. With an endowment of over 160 million dollars, this is within reach, although that money should certainly not come out of the financial aid allocation or teachers’ salaries. (Of course, until the school appropriates this money, student fundraising will remain a critical way to reduce hunger in our state, as the CT Food Bank has made clear that the most useful form of assistance Hopkins can offer is financial. I am by no means trying to discourage fundraising – in fact, I recommend that every student do some fundraising this winter. (I know I’ll be doing plenty of it.)
The second question is: “What would Hopkins students do instead?” Service should widen students’ perspectives by exposing us to people with very different life experiences. Personal interactions are critical to this. Social science has long shown that face to face conversations are extremely effective at popping the insulated bubble that many of us live our lives inside. A redesigned service program should aim to put Hopkins students in unfamiliar environments and to force us to confront uncomfortable truths about our own privilege.
Because there are uncomfortable conversations that need to happen. We live in a country where dramatic (and increasing) levels of inequality have led to a legal, educational, and labor system that works differently for the haves and have-nots. According to the Federal Reserve, four in ten American families can’t come up with $400 in an emergency, 80 percent of Hopkins families have over $40,000 in disposable income. I think the best way to facilitate personal interactions is by trying to emulate and somewhat expand two existing programs: the elementary school tutoring program and the several yearly visits to Columbus House. These initiatives involve ten students at a time visiting a nearby public school and a New Haven soup kitchen, respectively. While John Anderson, a faculty adviser for community service, told me it would be fairly difficult to dramatically expand the Columbus House visits, he also said the elementary school would love to have more Hopkins students tutor.
Of course, simply expanding these existing programs cannot replace all that much of the 2,000 hours we collectively spend on street corners. I think over the course of the next year, Student Council, in conjunction with the administration and with input from the student body, should try and find ways to put the energy and ability of Hopkins students towards other community service programs that broaden students’ horizons. Starting places could be a potential partnership with New Haven Reads, getting older students involved with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or, as Takoudes suggested, having students volunteer at the Mobile Pantry. This is not a simple task. Changing the focus of our school’s chief community service initiative would take time and effort. But I believe it’s worthwhile, because, at the moment, the Canned Food Drive is delivering the wrong lessons. It implicitly tells students that, to get things done, you write checks or ask affluent people for money, and you do so without really speaking to actual people in need.
People love to repeat the line that the purpose of Hopkins is “for the breeding up of hopeful youths,” but cutting off Edward Hopkins’ words there, in my opinion, misses the larger point. Because the actual line tells us the reason for educating us students is “for the public service of the country in future times.” If Hopkins students] are going to be of use in serving the public, we need to have a better understanding of our own fortune. Refocusing some of our community service efforts on person to person experiences is a great way to do that. Contrast a classroom with twenty-five energetic fourth graders and one teacher trying to keep order and your twelve-student math class. It’s difficult to delude yourself into the belief that America is a meritocracy, where individual effort matters more than what family you’re born into.
Up until now, the CFD has been a way to “make a difference” without ever deeply challenging our preconceptions of the world. That’s not right, and it’s why I think some change could be in order.