Community Service in American Culture

February 1, 2001

This course begins with the proposition that community service is, in the United States, a significant and continuing cultural response to the individual and social dilemmas that emerge from the intersection of capitalism and democracy. Focusing on the history of the Smith Hill Neigborhood of Providence and current efforts to revitalize it, we will explore our contemporary concern for “community,” the origins of the concept of “community service,” and the “streams” of service that have emerged and been institutionalized in the United States over the past 150 years.

We will develop our historic imaginations (the capacity to understand how the past is present in the here and now) and, in the end, we want to come to some understanding of how two basic questions have been answered in America: What collective responses to the meanest problems of our society are effective in making the world a better place? What individual responses to these same problems help other individuals become all that they can be? During the course we will move back and forth among historic responses to these questions, the contemporary legacies of these responses and the meaning of the service you are doing.

Community Service in American Culture will explore the origins and legacies of the social, political, and cultural transformations of late 19th and early 20th century American that defined both a crisis of community and forms of service in response to that crisis. Because thisera is very much “the beginning of our own time,” as the historian Henry May has written, understanding its contours and manifestations has direct implications for the present day. We will approach this period and the recognition of “community” as an issue of critical importance-socially, politically, morally-through the history represented by a simple worker’s cottage at 61 Lydia Street in Smith Hill.

We will join in this historic exploration of community service with the more immediate goal of rehabilitating 61 Lydia Street. We will work with the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation (CDC) staff and board to develop and implement a plan for bringing this about. Built as a rental property for factory workers in 1889 by the Dickhaut family, the property is currently owned by the CDC. The CDC plans to renovate the property and sell it for the owner occupancy. The house says much about the history of the neighborhood as a home to factory workers and immigrants. It says much about the economy, about class, about race. It says much about how we understand what are casually called “inner-city neighborhoods.” It says mucha bout the emergence of non-profit human and social service organizations, which combine a curious mix of public funds and private initiative. And it says much about the often paradoxica values of our culture- how a mobile people think about home; how we perceive injustice and justice; how we understand our collective responsibility and withold our compassion. In short, the home at 61 Lydia Street has the potential to inform and challenge our understanding of history, ourselves, and service.

While the content of this course is focused on intensive and comprehensive analysis of 61 Lydia Street and the cultural ocntext in which it is embedded, the course is also about the connection between this history and your present service involvement in a community. At one level, this site offers an opportunity for charity and hospitality; at another it requires a well managed system of skilled workers and volunteers. At yet another, it is a politicaly symbol- the physical product of years of public policy debates and local citizen activism. We hope, with this approach, to demonstrate how the past is present in your work and your lives.

Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House, 1910
Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City, 1995
Marybeth Rogers, Cold Anger, 1995
Peter Medhoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope , 1995

Requirements: The course requirements are:

Complete and average of 3-5 of community service per week. (15%)
Our collective goal is to develop and implement a plan for rehabilitating 61 Lydia Street. This work will be carried through a working group structure established in class. Initially, the working groups will be design and construction; fundraising; communication; worker recruitment and coordination; strategy and policy; and documentary and history. You will be expected to participate fully in one or more work groups and to join in physical work on the house as negotiated out in class.

Documenation/Portfolio (15%)
We expect that each working group will keep a portfolio of its work-meeting notes, written materials, research, questions, problems, etc. This will contribute to the regular reports scheduled throughout the semester, and will help those working on similar projects in the future. These portfolios will be turned in at semester’s end.

Class Participation (15%)
Participation in class discussions assumes that you are in class, have done the readings when required, and contribute to the learning of the class.

Complete Reflective Essays (30%)
The essays are exercises intended to help you think deeply about issues central to the course. In them, you will report on an interview of someone you believe has made service central to his or her life; ponder the centrality (or marginality) of spiritual commitment to service; and try to place yourself in the history of service.

Turn in a final paper or project, as described below (25%)
The final paper/project (12-15 pages) should summarize your thinking about the work you/we have undertaken during the semester, explore in depth the ways in which you understand that work and argue whether or not you believe working on a house such as this is, in fact, a service to the community, or the best way that a class such as this might serve a community such as Smith Hill. Note that presentations on your paper/project will be made during the final week of classes. Group projects are allowed, and encouraged; all members of a group will receive the same grade. Alternative media-video, art, theatre- are also encouraged. The absolute deadline for turning in the final project is 3 pm, Wednesday, May 6.

Monday – History/Theory
Wednesday – Application/Discussion
Thursday – Work Groups/Reports

January 15
Work Groups

January 19
MLK Day Observed;
No Class

January 21
Smith Hill:History
Read SH Preservation report
Providence Plan summary at SH Web Site: /psp/smithhill/smthlnot.htm

January 22
Meet Saturday, 61 Lydia Street, introduction Smith Hill CDC staff

January 26
Smith Hill
read: Triangle Plan

January 28
Charity, project, social change:What is the meaning of what we are doing? What makes a place a community?What makes a house a home?

January 29
Work groups:
first reports

February 2
Rebuilding the Inner City: Complete Halpern

February 4
Rebuilding, continued
meeting with the local residents (Mary Jones, Tom Twitchell, others)

February 5
Work groups:
second reports

February 9
Halpern, continued

February 11
The Smith Hill CDC:
history, roles, issues

February 12
Working group reports

February 16
No class; class meets Tuesday,

February 17.
Economics, wealth and the origins of “scientific philanthropy”
Read Carnegie, Wealth

February 18
Economics, continued
February 19
Fundraising report and workshop

February 23
Communities by Design
Reading to be determined

February 25
Meet with RISD class February 26
Design report, issues

March 2
Spring Break

March 9
Voluntarism: History, motivation, meaning. Read Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House

March 11 meet with reps. From Habitat for Humanity,
Christmas in April
March 12
Worker Coordination report

March 16
Origins of “Community Service” read Morton and Saltmarsh
March 18
Origins of the NFP sector
read Hall,Inventing the Non-profit sector>
March 19
Working group meetings

March 23
Strategy, Policy and Power
Rogers, Cold Anger
March 25
Rogers, continued
March 26
Strategy and Policy report

March 30
The language of service: Communication
April 1
Language, continued
April 2
Communication report

April 6
A place like Smith Hill: problems or opportunities
Read Streets of Hope and
“Why Care…”(web site)
April 8
Medhoff and Sklar, cont.
April 9
Easter Break; no class

April 13
mets Tues,
April 14
Who is the community
Read Walzer, “Membership”
April 15
Who is the community, continued
April 16
Documentary Group Report

April 20
Read Matthei Economics as if Values Really Mattered
April 22
Ecnomics and Values, continued
April 23
Working Group Reports

April 27
Summary reports and legacies to the next group
April 29
Summary reports and legacies to the next group
April 30
Summary reports and legacies to the nect group

Final Projects are due no later than 3pm, Wednesday, May 6.

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