A step further for community

| Staff Columnist

A few days ago, while fulfilling my mandatory daily quota of procrastination courtesy of Facebook, I came across an event entitled “One Day without Shoes.” Intrigued, I clicked “attending” and waited for the event page to load. I’m a sucker for ostensibly hippy happenings, and this event had “Stick It to the Bourgeois Footwear-Donning Establishment” written all over it—or so I thought. The event had a much more important purpose than the promotion of hippy culture, namely, to raise awareness about the plight of barefoot children in developing countries.

The ramifications of lacking an item so basic in our community are astronomical—to the extent that viewing shoes as something to be kicked off casually in the summertime seems almost ludicrous to me now. Empathy, which in theory leads to social justice action, is a powerful emotion when properly harnessed. Independent of action (donating money or volunteer time), the intrinsic value, however, seems to be limited. It would be odd to say that we ought to attempt to feel another’s pain without then trying to alleviate it. Or maybe our duty is simply to not actively cause pain to others. In this case, such empathy is merely a preventative measure. I would argue that we have a positive duty to aid other people and also that many people pay lip service to volunteering while actually putting forth very little effort.

It would seem ludicrous to justify ignoring the plight of a drowning classmate by arguing that morality only entails refraining from bashing other peoples’ heads in (no matter how badass the resulting blood spatter would be). The case seems less clear when the situation is more remote, mainly because it’s really difficult to ignore people screaming for help. When there isn’t a bloodcurdling scream or pair of puppy-dog eyes, however, the situation is a lot easier to ignore for arbitrary reasons like proximity—hence the creation of events like “One Day Without Shoes.” I support such events, but mainly for their instrumental purpose. Hopefully, people will be galvanized to donate time or money to an organization, rather than viewing morality as something that can be expressed purely as a fashion statement. (Though, admittedly, some of those pro-recycling T-shirts are pretty cute.) It’s tempting to expound on the virtues of volunteering or charitable causes while actually putting forth very little effort, in order to gain social acceptance or a warm fuzzy feeling. No matter how warm your heart feels when you take off your shoe or slap a bumper sticker on your car, action needs to accompany sentiment.

While it’s impossible to anticipate and respond to all of the world’s crises for a lack of knowledge and resources, it is possible to donate time to tutor local children, for instance, or donate to vetted aid organizations. A struggling child in St. Louis is as deserving as a shoeless child overseas. And while walking a few laps at Relay for Life is important, letting that be the extent of your community service tendencies is a little lame, particularly considering the relative affluence of the Wash. U. community.

Yes, I know we’re all busy with chem exams and Thirsty Thursdays, but I know everyone here has a few hours a week to put real effort into volunteering. We attempt to get by community service-wise with recycling slogans and canned goods at Thanksgiving. Worse, some of us slap such activities onto résumés just as proof that they have souls—admit it, a lot of us did that to get into this university.

My point is twofold. One, people have a duty to actively help each other. It’s good karma, dude; community service actually improves communities, for the people both giving and receiving the aid. This includes the global community, although individuals are especially effective in their local areas. Second, people should do real community service, not simply stopping at otherwise empty gestures or a guilt-tinged can of soup at Thanksgiving. By all means, put community service experience on your résumé—just make it count for more than your good image.

Natalie is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at ndvillal@artsci.wustl.edu.