Speakers raise concern about sexism in community service
Last Tuesday, the Department of Community Service sponsored a discussion about scenarios in volunteer work titled "Sexism in Service."
The event was led by Lindsey Miller from AmeriCorps VISTA, member of an AmeriCorps program aimed at fighting poverty, working with the Department of Community Service and its higher education intern Jack Korpob. A diverse group of students and staff, including Associate Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life Marci McPhee and Director of the Department of Community Service Lucas Malo, attended the event.
Opening the discussion, Kateri Spear '15 shared an experience from her recent work with Habitat for Humanity over February break, during which she and other Brandeis students went to Pennsylvania to build a home.
On the last day of the trip, Spear said the overheard an older volunteer make "demeaning comments about one of our female-bodied volunteers" due to the assumption that she could not perform the manual labor of constructing a house as effectively as he could. The experience was "very uncomfortable" for the volunteer, according to Spear.
Miller noted that there are "always external factors involved" with working on a service project, and acknowledged that volunteers face the dilemma of how to address these sorts of situations in a respectful manner.
Korpob also shared a similar story from his undergraduate study at the University of California, San Diego about a service trip to Belize that he helped lead. Once his group arrived, he noticed that the local workers and liaisons would only speak to him. At first, he said that he did not think much of it, but it soon became apparent that the local members of the organization would not interact with his co-leaders because they were female.
"I told [a liaison] that service was the reason that we were there," said Korpob, adding that "telling someone they can't do the same service because they are female simply wasn't going to happen."
While Korpob admitted this situation made the trip awkward, he said that his team "fought back" against this discrimination. "Sometimes, you have to be the person to say [something] is wrong."
Korpob added that volunteers working in another culture could encounter cultural norms that make it difficult to stand up for their beliefs. While he "saw it to be appropriate" in this instance, he acknowledged that often it is "very difficult" for volunteers to feel empowered in foreign environments.
McPhee also added that Sorenson Fellows-students who are given a financial stipend by the Sorenson Fellowship so they may serve abroad with an organization of their choice during a summer-often "feel like they sold out their beliefs" if they choose to accept the gender norms of a different country.
The latter half of the discussion was dominated by a recent advertising campaign of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Boston, a service organization that pairs children with older role models. The advertising campaign, called "Chicks Dig Bigs," is an effort to address the chronic shortage of male volunteers for the organization. In a video put out by the campaign, a female narrator claims "93 percent of women are more likely to admire a guy who volunteers with kids." The campaign's web page calls on women to "ask that special guy in her life ... and urge him to help make a difference in a child's life."
When the discussion turned toward the reasoning behind the campaign, McPhee acknowledged that a shortage of male volunteers has been an issue for BBBSB, but added that she didn't know "what [she] would do to solve this problem, but [she was] not sure this was it."
Spear also called into question the reasons a person volunteers to serve, and remained unconvinced that an individual who joined after seeing this campaign would be "the best person to commit to mentor a child," as opposed to an individual who opted to serve in order to create a meaningful relationship with a child.
Sharon Passov '15, a coordinator for Language and Cultural Enrichment, a branch of the Waltham Group that pairs Brandeis students with English language learners from the Kennedy Middle School in Waltham, stated that she found the campaign "silly" and that it played on cultural norms, but did acknowledge that it showed the "desperation that the [organization] faces" with regard to male volunteers.
Passov added that male volunteers at Brandeis typically ask to be paired with male children, and desire to spend time in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center "instead of [doing] arts and crafts or other activities."
Sophie Brickman '16, a coordinator for Brandeis Big Siblings said that Brandeis Big Siblings' lack of male volunteers could be addressed in more productive ways, such as having "male volunteers speak to other males" to show them that "it is cool to serve."
She also said that Brandeis Big Siblings has started working with the Athletics department, and that having a male athlete attest to his experiences with the organization have been successful.
This event was the last in a series of discussions put on by the Department of Community Service in an effort to promote dialogue about service.