I’m a bit late to the party, but in advance of my vacation I downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack from Amazon Prime (yay #Amazon) and have been listening to it nonstop for almost 2 weeks. After presenting at the Indiana Campus Compact Networking meeting, I couldn’t help but take notice of all the different ways we can link the Hamilton musical to service-learning! While my perspective comes from someone who works professionally in higher education service-learning, this can apply to anyone who is planning to volunteer/plan service projects!
The “Hamilton Guide to Quality Community Service” will be a short series of several blog posts. This is the first one. Be sure to check the end for recommended readings based on concepts mentioned!
Let’s get to it:
1. “Talk less, smile more” – from the song “Aaron Burr, Sir”
Concept link: community voice; relationship building
As the nervous and young Alexander Hamilton approaches Aaron Burr to discuss his university education (and “punching the bursar, sir” – something I’m sure we have all imagined as students but really would be uncool in reality because the bursar is just working for their paycheck!). As Hamilton rambles more than Willow in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Burr offers some free advice: “Talk less, smile more”.
Burr’s words have a different intention in the musical, but I urge staff, faculty, and students engaged in service-learning to talk less. Historically, S-L programs tend to focus more-so on the needs of universities rather than communities. We have these ‘educated’ folks who come into communities and tell the community members what they will do ‘for you’.
This is where the value of ‘community voice’ enters the planning process. We must work with community members/organizations to ask what their community needs are, and then establish service projects that fit these needs. For example, if your group wants to do a food drive they must contact a food pantry first to make sure that the pantry wants/needs donations and, if so, what types of donations they need. It wouldn’t be helpful if the students collected 200 cans of green beans when the pantry does not have the space to store these items and/or have zero need for more green beans.
As for the smiling? That’s about being friendly and working to establish + build relationships with community members and organizations. Listen to their stories, learn about the daily lives of the community members, and work to develop an authentic relationship.
2. “Why do you assume that you’re the smartest in your room? Soon that attitude may be your doom” – from the song “Non-Stop”
Concept link: cultural humility, open-mindedness
Before, during, and after a service project there can be an issue of ego on behalf of service participants.
Prior to a service project, students (and staff + faculty!!) may assume they know everything about this issue. This may be because they have obtained an academic education on the topic. For example, if the service project supports an after-school program in a low-income neighborhood, perhaps the student is an education major who knows a good deal about children and education issues. Or a student took a sociology class and believes they understand a lot about poverty. But, academic knowledge is not the same as experiential knowledge. It’s important that students humble themselves before entering service to understand that they still have a lot to learn.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are students who may consider themselves an expert on the social issue(s) of the project because they personally experienced the issue. They certainly have a degree of insight, but must embrace humility as well. For example, as a person who grew up in poverty I once assumed I understood poverty. But the experiences of poverty differ according to region (urban, rural), race and ethnicity, immigrant status, sexuality, disability, and other intersecting identities that complicate the experience of poverty. Even if I, as a rural impoverished person, went to a different part of the country on an alternative break to support people experiencing rural poverty, my experience will never be just like someone else’s experience.
Following the service project, some students may consider themselves “the smartest person in the room” on the topic of the social issue at hand. Yet, they have only gained a brief insight into that one social issue in that one specific community. Coupled with the always complicated issues of social issues, there is always so much more to learn. The self-education of social issues and quality community service is a lifelong process.
Miron, D., & Moely, B. E. (2006). Community agency voice and benefit in service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(2).