The National Day of Service and the Challenges of Doin’ it Big

It’s been awhile since we’ve posted but I’ve had a piece simmering in my head for a few weeks and finally am getting some time to sit down and write it.  Have a look and give us your thoughts in the comments:


Like millions of my fellow Americans, I participated in the National Day of Service this year, which is held annually in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and which President Obama has tried, through each of his inaugural celebrations, to establish as a quadrennial presidential tradition as well.  Across the country on Saturday, January 19, groups of citizens large and small volunteered with a range of organizations, each different in its particular mission but contributing in its own way to the Greater Good.

After finding that a smaller event we had tried to sign up for was filled to capacity, my girlfriend and I ended up at the DC Armory, where thousands of volunteers helped to pack care kits for US military troops.  It was a huge event, sponsored most prominently by Target, and it even included a visit from Vice President Biden and his family.  There were DJs, musical acts by school bands and other groups who had traveled from locations across the country to be there, and a stage to accommodate all of this entertainment for the morning’s eager volunteers.


The scene inside the Armory

So many people showed up, in fact, that there was a 30 minute wait to even get inside the building, followed by some additional waiting indoors as all of the volunteers were funneled through metal detectors and given wristbands.  Once inside, volunteers stood in rows organized by letters and numbers, waiting another 15-20 to be ushered to the front of the crowd, where each volunteer picked up a plastic pouch and held it open while event coordinators stationed behind a series of carefully marked boxes smiled and deposited various personal care items – soap, toothpaste, etc. – inside.

It was, in many ways, assembly line volunteerism.  As one of the country’s largest retailers introduced its factory-style efficiency to the community service experience, volunteers waited in line to do their part, and if they felt as if they had more time when they were finished, waited in line and did it again.  When we left after about 2 1/2 hours, my girlfriend and I had been through the line twice and helped pack about 8 kits each.  In total, 100,000 kits were packed on the day.

The following is not to diminish what was accomplished on that Saturday, but merely to ask some questions.  Among them:

How many people does it honestly take to assemble 100,000 military kits?  Was there something more useful that the thousands waiting in line at the Armory to hold a pouch open could have done instead to better their communities?  Is waiting in line really volunteering?  Am I just being curmudgeonly? 

The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on who’s answering them, but here’s an honest reading of the situation that I think gives credit where it’s due: Target and other major sponsors put on an event that was intended to be big, it was successful in its mission, the event organizers did a great job running everything as smoothly as possible, and US troops got 100,000 care kits that they didn’t have previously.  A-plus all around.

Still, this leads us to a more complicated and fundamental question – was such a large, industrial-scale event the best way to get people out and volunteering on a brisk Saturday?  What else could all of those people packed into the DC Armory have done if they were dispersed instead of consolidated?

We live in a big country, and much of the national discourse revolves around our big institutions.  Big business dominates the economy, big banks hold most of our assets, big government is seen as hero or villain depending on who you talk to, all while big foundations increasingly present themselves as the saviors of those who fall through the cracks.  We live in big cities.  Most of us shop at big stores.  And when it comes to the political and economic decisions that affect the country and the communities within it, most subscribe to the logic of big.  A big federal program here, a big business recruitment success there, big new generating capacity and transmission infrastructure to account for our future energy needs, big companies that can operate at large economies of scale and offer big savings to the consumer.  A big service event on a cold day in January to help keep us all humble.

But what if this wasn’t the way forward?  What if the blatant inefficiency of all those people spending 80 percent of their volunteer time waiting in line was actually the ugly truth lurking behind most of the big assumptions we passively accept?  What if this was more or less a proxy for what we get when we trust that big, corporate-scale solutions are what’s needed to solve problems best dealt with in a smaller capacity?  A job-starved community spends countless time and resources to recruit a big outside company that promises to create hundreds of new jobs, offering a lucrative package of tax incentives to help seal the deal, while vesting all of its economic hopes with one business in one industry that will reinvest its profits elsewhere.  An environmental activist chooses to invest their time dreaming up big, utility scale energy projects in faraway parts of the country, seeking transformative solutions and seeing few alternatives.  The average consumer takes their business to a big box retailer, convinced that no one else can offer the same level of convenience and savings.  Are these the actions that will re-invigorate our communities and help us rebuild for the 21st century?

Big will always play an important role.  Some big businesses will remain large employers.  Some tasks are best done by large-scale entities.  Regardless of whose politics win the day, the federal government will remain big, because in a country of over 300 million, there really are few other alternatives.  And on Saturday, January 19, 2013, many of the thousands who showed up at the DC Armory needed somewhere to go if they wanted to help out; several of DC’s great service organizations had such a supply of volunteers that they simply had to say no to anyone else who asked.

But what if we could imagine the results of thinking smaller – and saw these not as feeble attempts to chip away at a problem that is beyond our solving, but as small pieces to a larger, more meaningful solution?  Thousands of rooftop solar installments.  Local support not for big businesses trying to locate but for small ones trying to compete locally – the source of a much larger economic multiplier when they are successful.  Policies to help leverage the economic impact of home-based businesses and self-employed professionals.  Education initiatives tailored to the needs of kids in specific schools rather than those determined by public bureaucrats and big private benefactors.  What if millions of these actions, undertaken by communities across the country, could collectively have a greater impact on our country than waiting for our big institutions to act?  What if acting locally were the only way to bring about positive change within many of the places most desperate for it?

As a country, we’ve been through the boom and bust cycle of big.  It sounds like it was a great ride while it lasted.  Either way, its aftermath has a name befitting of the scale at which our nation has chosen to operate: The Great Recession.  And as our big companies downsized and our big government saw its tax receipts drop while its obligations and deficits rose, it may have become even harder, for a brief moment, to see a way out of this mess that wasn’t as big as the way in.  But with big crises come new thinking, and with big longstanding challenges come the necessities of drawing up new solutions.  Mix in the internet, the most decentralizing force the world has ever known, along with an emerging recognition that many local problems will never be solved without local solutions, and there is a recipe for an entirely new model of development and prosperity that puts our existing political and economic institutions to far better use.

What if on a chilly Saturday morning, I could spend 2.5 hours truly maximizing my impact, rather than just waiting around hearing thank-yous that I may or may not have earned?  I contributed something on this year’s National Day of Service, but I think that everyone who was there in the Armory knows that we all could have done more.  When it comes to the decisions we make about our communities, we should be just as discerning.

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