Service in an Age of Inequality

A community conversation on inequality today and our roles in addressing it.

June 20, 2012

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Participants were invited to view a series of images and add one word that came to mind.

As the National Conference for Volunteering and Service kicked off its annual conference in Chicago with 4,000 people in attendance, 24 civic leaders – from Chicago, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and beyond – gathered for a discussion on the theme of “Service in an Age of Inequality.” 

In 2012, in the midst of a sustained economic recession, when the socio-economic gaps appear to be wider than at any time since the 1920s, and when the Occupy Movement – with its mobilization of the 99% – has arisen in over 1,100 cities in the U.S. and across the globe to decry the increasing concentration of wealth among the top 1%, the question arises: what does service and volunteerism – one of the hallmarks of our civil society – do to address this gap?  Is service reducing inequality? Is that even the goal? And how should those who are working in community to address this inequality respond to the fact that things can seem to be getting worse, not better, and may continue to get worse in the coming years?

Participants began by considering a list of statistics – on education, poverty, unemployment, income and wealth, and criminal justice – that showed a substantial increase in rates of incarceration, of long-term unemployment, of homelessness, of student debt and dropout rates, with racial disparities evident in each category. (Click here to view the prepared handout.)  How do we respond to these statistics?  What do they mean about the impact of the work we are doing?

Using a piece that became famous after September 11th, 2001 for its appearance in The New Yorker,  participants read aloud Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” and talked about the current state of the world. Is mutilation the right word for where we are, even if it sounds so ugly? What other ways should we describe what we see around us? Should we be sharing lists of statistics about growing inequality with our communities and partners, even if it’s depressing or numbing to hear?  And maybe just as importantly, what others things should we pay attention to?  How do we “praise” the world even as we acknowledge its ugliness? 

The discussion was led by Kelli Covey and Adam Davis from the Center for Civic Reflection.

Participants included:
Qween Wicks, Columbia College
Heather Greenwell, Executive ServiceCorps
Susan Fort, Executive ServiceCorps
Tom Lashinski, IHDA
Carly Siuta, City Year Chicago
Laurence Minsky, Columbia College
Amanda Helfer, United Way of Larimer County
Nicole Vera, CBPYT, City and County of Denvor
Aubrie Tossmann, Umoja Student Development Corporation
Laura Mulvey, CBPYT, City and County of Denvor
Mia Garcia-Hills, Concordia University
Eileen Heineman, YWCA Evanston/North Shore
James E. Britt Jr., School of the Art Institute
Anita Caref, Asian Human Services
Lucia Flores, PCC AmeriCorps
Rebecca Brown, Literature for All of Us
Ellen Knutson, Northwestern University
Courtney Becks, Engage Wisconsin
Maggie Stevens, Indianan Campus Compact
Laura West, OneStar Foundation
Jerry Bertrand, OneStar Foundation
Gin Hooks, Teach Plus Chicago