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Friday, January 12, 2024

Volunteerism - The Failed Doctrine Of Political Compassion

The students of an elite private school in Washington, DC attended an orientation class on community service, an activity which was mandatory.  The school, founded a century ago by Quaker educators had long adhered to the philosophy of its founding philosophy of “Faith, Help, And Kindness”.  

School founders had been inspired by the Quakers of the past who had been among the principal movers of the abolition movement prior to the Civil War.  Although the war was fought on practical grounds – free labor, trade, Constitutional legitimacy, and mercantilism – the Quakers insisted first and foremost that moral authority gave the North supremacy over the South and that its righteousness would always prevail; and second that war was not the way to solve any conflict, even one premised on moral grounds.  According to the Quakers there was no such thing as a just war.

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In the tumult of the Sixties and the movement to assure civil rights for the black man, the Quakers were at the forefront.  Although they eschewed the violence of its most radical factions, they were central to the movement.  

At the core of this absolute commitment was not only the principle of equal justice, but a feeling for the heart and soul of the Negro.  He was a man among men, having proved his mettle throughout slavery, surviving, protesting, and praising God for sustenance and strength.  He came from the noble tribal tradition of Africa, one although animist in spiritual nature and primitive in culture, was more in tune with Quaker values than the vicious Christian slaveholders of the South.  

African communities had fierce loyalty to family, clan, and tribe; and valued the integrity of cooperation, collaboration, and respect.  The black man, however punishing and evil the institution of slavery may have been maintained his dignity, his pride, and his tribal conditioning.

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Margaret Mead was right, reflected the current Head of School, Harper Loke.  Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa had written of the innate kindness, gentleness, and gracious and generous sharing which characterized the tribe she studied.  There was something noble and instructive about these so-called ‘primitive’ people, she said – something that should be learned, respected, and applied by the West; and he would establish what he called ‘Compassionate Nativism’ at the school. 

 According to this philosophy, he would recruit black students from the poorest inner city neighborhoods in the city, convinced that once in the nurturing, respectful environment of the school, they would dismiss their bad habits, turn around and become model students.

At first his philosophy of ‘Applied Tribalism’ was called out by some as racist; but although many on the school’s Board of Directors wanted him out, most agreed with him.  It was time for the black man to regain his rightful place in society – the top rung.   

Loke survived, remained, and thanks to the support of the Board majority, went on to promote his ‘Black first, last, and foremost’ agenda.  He, good politician that he was, toned down his Noble Savage language and removed most references to Margaret Mead (who, in the meantime had been entirely discredited by her critics who convincingly accused her of unscientific, hopeful bias); but, convinced of his own noble mission to raise the black man to his proper place in American society, continued undaunted and unimpeded; and went on to implement ‘Affirmative Action +’, a proactive, aggressive program to recruit students from the city’s most disadvantaged wards .

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These communities, however, were not just poor, they were among the city’s poorest. The wards in which they were located had the highest levels of violent crime, rape, murder, assault, drug trafficking, truancy, and spousal abuse. 

Loke knew that if he was to prove the viability of his thesis – that the black man was not only equal to but superior to the white, invested as he was by African tribal purity and spiritual clarity, tempered by long enslavement, and heroic despite his reverses – he would have to select students from the most dismal heart of black Washington.

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Surprisingly, he met with resistance from black families who assumed his offer of school enrollment  was a scam.  No white man had ever been in this benighted corner of the city since Jim Crow, and the sooner this particular white man leave, the better. 

The more impassioned his pleas and assurances of truth and genuine respect became, the more vivid his pictures of the school and the diverse teaching body, the lawn, soccer fields, and dining room, and the more he reiterated the economic value of such an education, the more restive the desultory few in his audience became.

Needless to say Loke was surprised but he remain undiscouraged, and on his next visit he brought one of his black colleagues as an interlocutor.

‘Get yo’ sorry Uncle Tom Ass outta here’, they shouted even as Loke waved sheaves of green above his head. “I’m serious, I’m serious”, he yelled; and finally the community caught on.  ‘Walkin’ around money’ it was called, the no-questions-asked political favors offered by Mayor for Life Marion Barry and all but his most prude white wannabee successors. 

 “We’ll take it”, they said, and that Fall ten students from Anacostia were selected to make the daily trek to Ward 3.

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Loke showcased them, chose one to lead each Quaker meeting, every matriculation, graduation, and Notable Day celebration.  The families of white students were of impeccable liberal pedigree and many had served in the Clinton and Obama Administrations; and were overjoyed at Head of School Loke’s new Affirmative Action + program. 

Their children were not so sure.  They saw these underqualified, hopelessly unschooled and unprepared students as an insult.  It was one thing to make an effort to racially diversify the student body, another altogether to insist on the academic and intellectual value of Washington’s worst. Black students eschewed white association and hunkered down at their own lunch tables, bleacher seats, and corners of the common rooms.  

When word got around that these students were making grades equal to that of the best white students, even the most died-in-the-wool parent complained.

Loke demurred.  He and his staff had done no such thing.  The black students had, as expected, performed admirably. 

In the Spring of this first year of Affirmative Action + part of Loke’s program was to expose the white, privileged children of the school to the communities from which his ‘chosen’ students came.  Despite the initial hostile response of the community during the recruitment process, Loke was sure that his offer to volunteer student assistance to the community would be received well. 

The community, however, now convinced of the scam and happy to benefit from it, asked how much it was worth, and Loke secured a generous ‘Community Development Grant’ from the Board.  Ostensibly it was for rakes and plastic trash bags, but it was delivered in cash to the head of the local community organization with no questions asked.

Five white students per week for the entire Spring term would head down to Brierly Heights and help clean up the neighborhood.  Bennett Park was first on the list.  By night it was an open-air drug market, and by day a place for derelicts and addicts.  It was a disgusting mess.  Despite being at the center of the neighborhood, it had been left to its interlopers, dogs, and rats.  A once leafy and pleasant oasis from the crowded city, it was now a blighted reminder of the failure of very private, public, community, and family social system.  

According to Loke, this was the place to send his privileged white, liberal students.  Once they saw the environment from which their black colleagues had come, the quicker they would realize the importance of liberating them and would welcome them with open arms.

Photographs taken of the white students picking up needles, syringes, condoms, rats, and bullet casings quickly made the rounds of the PTA.  ‘Enough is enough!’ demanded its President; and coming from him, an Assistant Secretary for Health And Human Services, lifelong liberal, progressive avant garde leader, and spokesman for the Upper Northwest progressive community, it had teeth.

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“We are not opposed to volunteerism”, he explained, “but isn’t there room for moderation?”.  He was referring to his own son’s wish to volunteer at an all-white arts center in Georgetown.  The boy, a talented artist on his way to Cooper Union, wanted to teach young children the fundamentals of drawing and painting. 

“That is not volunteerism”, responded Loke.  It goes against the Quaker principle of racial harmony and equality and Quakers’ dedication to helping the black man rise above poverty, dysfunction, and racial stagnation.  Picking up repulsive trash in the worst of the worst minority neighborhoods was an annealing process, a necessary step towards cross-racial understanding leading to the final ascension of the black man to his rightful place of power.

Needless to say, Head of School Loke’s contract was not renewed and he left that summer for a small, secular private school in Vermont which, because of COVID had no headmaster and few teachers.  

The volunteer program was reconfigured, repurposed, and re-energized, and students happily taught music, art, dance, math, and creative writing throughout the city.  Cynical observers thought that such volunteerism – no more than an attractive bit on college applications – was a waste of time and resources. Not only had the principle of volunteerism been promoted, but the privileged white children who benefited from volunteer tutorials really didn’t need any such extracurricular attention.

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The pendulum eventually swung back to traditional progressive policies and programs; and the list of volunteer opportunities once again focused on a more direct black-white relationship (Big Brother mentoring, for example; or ‘Let’s Police the Playground Together’).  It was no longer acceptable to volunteer at a white majority library, for example, and read stories to pre-school children, or to assist at young people’s soccer tournaments.  

Most participation was desultory at best, an hour of the week spent sullenly on school busses between wards and in the neighborhoods.  Nothing learned except that inner city communities don’t give a shit about their own neighborhoods.

America is the volunteer country.  More people per capita are engaged in voluntary activities here than in any other country.  But this volunteerism is voluntary, self-selected and suitable.  The former Vassar Book Sale, one of the regions largest used book fairs, raised thousands of dollars thanks to an all-volunteer alumnae staff.  The ladies loved books, hated to see them thrown away, and were happy to see them find new homes.  Everyone was happy with the Sale, it perfectly matched supply, demand, good will, and personal interest.

This should be the foundational principle of volunteerism, nothing else.

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