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What’s service got to do with it? Everything

Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director UC Berkeley Public Service Center | January 18, 2021

Less than a fortnight ago the world witnessed the destructive potential of radicalized white nihilism. This weekend as I watched footage of insurgents inside the Congressional chambers, it was clear to me that these actions were not grounded in any understanding of liberation, but rather in the same self destructive entitlement, despair, and grief that is fueling rampant opiate addiction and accelerating suicide rates among destabilized white people.

This nihilism was deliberately fueled by delusional conspiracies, allowed to metastasize within social media echo chambers, weaponized by right wing political and media elites, and intentionally activated as racialized and gendered rage against the people’s houses of government.

It is beyond ironic that the same elites who did the most to whip their followers into a murderous mob intent on catching and killing their “enemies” are now arguing for unity, healing, and reconciliation rather than accountability. Much too little, far too late. 

And to be sure, the rise in white nationalist hate is not just a problem within “red” states.  In 2019 the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 88 hate groups operating in California and a number of Californians were among the rioters at the Capitol. 

But what do these events mean for UC Berkeley? What can we do to utilize our resources and educate our students as a countermeasure against this rising tide of hate? For one piece of that puzzle we can turn to the prophetic insights of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

In February of 1968, King delivered his famous sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in which he critiques the human impulse to pursue recognition, importance, and positionality. In his sermon, King traces the roots of a host of personality distortions and social ills – whether it be status climbing, anti-social behavior, or racism – back to the “perversion” of the drum major instinct. For in the amoral pursuit to be triumphant, to be superior, to be first, people and even nations have committed atrocities. And so for King “the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct”.  

King however, does not roundly condemn an instinct he believes is intrinsic to the human personality. Rather he offers service as a way of channeling this impulse for good. 

“If you want to be important – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness. And the thing I like about it….by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of King’s service on America and American democracy. And it’s critical to note that the example of his own life, as well as the actions of the Southern Black Freedom Struggle (aka the Civil Rights Movement) indicate that for King, service encompasses a broad range of activities including direct action and civil resistance. Yet in this sermon King is not championing service solely because of its impact in the world. He is advocating for service primarily because of how service can transform the servant. Referring back to the scripture that inspired the sermon, King shares his interpretation of Jesus’ response: 

 “Keep feeling the need to be first. But be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do”. 

King closes the sermon by reflecting on his own death and how he wished to be remembered as someone who “tried to love and serve humanity”. Two months later he was assassinated in Memphis and excerpts from this sermon were played from that same pulpit in Ebenezer Baptist Church at his funeral.

King so loved humanity that he sacrificed his life for justice, democracy, and freedom for the Black community and all Americans. Thankfully, that level of sacrifice is not required to reap the benefits of service.  However, in their recent essay “Can Service Save America?”, Greg Baldwin and Laura Plato of VolunteerMatch echo the importance of striking a healthy balance between service and self, and note how our current imbalance hinders efforts to craft a truly inclusive multiracial democracy. On the attack on the Capitol they write: 

Left buried in the day’s wreckage was what remains of our country’s once proud history of putting service above self – a history defined by the sacrifice of those who have fought to prevent our differences from fulfilling our shared obligation to serve our country, our communities, and each other.

Decades into our deep dive into neoliberalism, the hyperindividualistic, hypermaterialistic aspects of our culture are consuming all of our other values  and in doing so, is bringing the country down about our ears just as issues such as climate change, an economy in transition, COVID-19, and demographic diversity can only be successfully approached by thinking holistically and communally.

Service can help prepare our students to be the thoughtful, compassionate, and community minded servant leaders our broken world so desperately needs. Studies of service/engaged learning within universities have found that service engagement promotes qualities such as responsibility, trustworthiness, caring for others, racial understanding, and continued civic engagement, particularly when these engagements are paired with curriculum that elucidates the systemic factors and root causes of social challenges. 

Service engagement has also been shown to support other university objectives such as improving student academic achievement and recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented students.

This call to service is not a call to send students or anyone else into communities to “fix” them. Better that we all stay on campus than descend on communities armed with drum major instincts like arrogance and righteousness in full force. Communities are also not laboratories for testing theories or running experiments. Rather, communities are our partners, co-educators, and co-creators. In honoring the wisdom and agency of communities we have the opportunity to bring together all of our capacities to learn, act, and facilitate change together. 

Engaging in service is not a social, political, or educational panacea. It’s not the silver bullet that will magically instill moral rectitude into the hearts of haters or solve the deeply embedded problems of racism, poverty, violence, or exploitation.

However just as the dangerously distorted drum major instinct is part and parcel of American culture so has been the penchant towards service; whether that service be helping out at a food bank, mentoring kids, interning at a nonprofit, advocating for public policy, or fighting for justice. We need to grab hold of that strand of our social history and begin actively reweaving the fabric of our world. Investing in service is investing in our collective futures, for our students and for ourselves. 

How can you serve today?

Much gratitude to the Emerson Collective for complying a list of opportunities to be of service during this time of sheltering such as

Volunteering with a number of organizations working in areas ranging from education to homelessness through the Presidential Inaugural Committee

Volunteering to transcribe historical documents through the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program

Writing letters to seniors who are in self-isolation with Letters Against Isolation

Sending a message of hope and healing to a child awaiting surgery through the World Pediatric Project

Transcribing Library of Congress documents with By the People

Providing groceries to those who are at heightened risk for COVID-19 with Invisible Hands

To explore longer term service opportunities

Visit VolunteerMatch and explore volunteer opportunities in your area.

Join #California’s For All, a statewide volunteer initiative launched by California Volunteers

Connect with the Public Service Center on campus.

Comments to “What’s service got to do with it? Everything

  1. Sandra, you are a powerful writer. Your service to our community is a bright point of light. Thank you for continuing to share of yourself. Best wishes for your bright future.

  2. Appreciate you, Dr Bass, and these words of inspiration and wisdom! Grateful for your modeling of leadership, accompanied by tangible ways to contribute and make a difference. Looking forward to passing this on!

  3. Thank you Dr. Bass for your powerful analysis, call to action, and offerings of tangible suggestions on how we can make a difference. Your words are so clear and direct. So much gratitude for you and your infinite wisdom and gifts.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Bass — I’ve been struggling to make sense of all this, your thoughts are so helpful as I find ways to sort myself. — service! Grateful for your leadership. Samuel

  5. Sandra, you are a powerful writer. Your service to our community is a bright point of light. Thank you for continuing to share of yourself.

  6. Such insightful commentary that perfectly lands in this political moment. There are ways to feel important that are as good for society as they are for the individual. Very inspiring.

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