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‘Common good’ efforts fail to achieve real change

April 13, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

The common good is drilled into campus culture—so much so that you may feel you are doing something moral just by attending Bowdoin. For all of the emphasis on the importance of the common good as a value, the College’s actual vision of what this looks like is small and antiquated. As it stands, the type of work done in the name of the Common Good often benefits the students and the College more than those who are supposedly being helped. The type of work currently being done is often a way for college students to alleviate guilt of having more resources than others and to act as if we are making a significant difference when we are not (in addition to being something to jot down on a resume). It’s time to radically reimagine what the common good looks like.

The types of activities the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good privileges are ones that do not fundamentally challenge the status quo in any way. All 28 of the organizations in the Bowdoin Volunteer Corps are service-based rather than advocacy-based. Service organizations exist to help people deal with problematic systems—disparities caused by capitalism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc. But they do nothing to change the system itself. And it is this work that needs to be done if we are going to actually benefit the common good.

So many of these organizations are meant to help individuals from lower-income communities, but they do nothing to address the source of these inequalities and may instead perpetuate them. For example, tutoring high school students for the SAT does make a difference in helping minimize the disparity between lower-income students’ scores and the scores of higher-income students. But this activity does not address the reasons why this inequality exists in the first place.

Service work needs to be accompanied by meaningful political work. If it is not, at best service is a Band-Aid in a bad system and at worst it is actively harmful in perpetuating the system itself. At times, the presence of volunteer work may teach the government that they do not have to provide services, as people themselves will step in. After all, if a private agency is meeting the need, why should the state or federal government do something? But the volunteering might not always be there, or be unreliable, or be insufficient. It is not that we should not help others, but we need to also critically examine what we are doing when we think we are helping. And to meaningfully change this problem, we cannot just work within the system. The system itself needs to be changed.

Bowdoin does not appear to consider political work on the same level as service work. And this is probably to try to remain as apolitical as possible so as not to ruffle feathers. But the issue is that the common good is political, if we understand the issues in society as ones that have been caused by large-scale systems that need to be changed. And the College cannot shy away from this if it claims promoting the common good as integral to its mission.

The administration needs to elevate political work to the same status as service work in conversations and messaging. Refuse to accept occasional volunteering as an indication of meaningful participation. Devote the same resources that we do to these service organizations to the few political advocacy groups that do exist on campus. We need to increase the number of political groups on campus and put dedicated effort into creating a campus culture of change that extends into the Bowdoin community. While one day a year is obviously not enough to significantly make a difference, while we do have Common Good Day we should change it to be more inclusive of political activities. In addition to the traditional Common Good Day options, have students sign up to register people to vote; canvas for different issues and candidates in election years; and help political advocacy groups. There is space in this community to work on a local level on campaigns that will help meaningfully change people’s lives through passing concrete legislation. Meaningful change is not going to happen from working at a soup kitchen once a year.

Rachel Baron is a co-leader of NARAL Pro-Choice Bowdoin, a political advocacy group focused on reproductive rights.

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