Perceived lack of service due to segregation of affluence
I never knew what the term "achievement gap" meant until I tutored at a low-income school in Washington, D.C. I never knew the depth of inequality of opportunity until I mentored underserved students in Houston. I never knew that 2.6 miles away from my neighborhood there was a school where 98 percent of the kids are in poverty until I visited two weeks ago.
Growing up in an upper-middle-class home here in Houston, I was not exposed to impoverished communities, low-income schools or sub-par facilities. I just never saw Houston's inequity.
Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as the "segregation of affluence"; namely, that upper-income families from suburbs or gated communities seldom interact with low-income citizens. The growing privatization of schools and community centers has accentuated this reality, as it decreases the possibilities for upper-income and low-income individuals to meet. The result of these factors is simple: Upper-income people are not exposed to society's poverty and inequality. This, by extension, leads to a number of misperceptions - "poor people are lazy" or "rich people are greedy" - that influence people's attitudes and actions toward the other. These direct and indirect effects of the segregation of affluence, in my estimation, partly explain Rice's lack of service.
Two weeks ago, an informative Thresher opinion piece ("Rice's secretive service: Volunteering at Rice must not be hidden" Jan. 31, 2013) posited that Rice's poor record of volunteering is due to either the students or the system. The article concluded that Rice's complex community service system was the sole driver of this. While I agree that Rice's service opportunities should be improved and that Rice students are not inherently evil people who shun community service, the picture seems somewhat more nuanced than this portrayal. That is, perhaps some Rice students are, like I was, unaware of the immense need for service. In other words, perhaps the segregation of affluence accounts for a portion of Rice's low volunteering culture.
This ignorance does not apply to every Rice student, but I would argue that it certainly applies to some. This is not any student's fault; rather, it is a societal flaw we must work to overcome. Let me also be unequivocal: I myself faced a similar reality. When I entered Rice, I had absolutely no interest in community service. Why? Because I just did not understand the level of inequality in Houston. My thought process was naive: I do not see poverty in Houston; therefore, I see no need for community service. While few, if any, are as ignorant as I was, some Rice students are likely unaware of our city's inequities.
If my assertion is true, the follow-up question is: What can Rice actually do about it? While offering classes focused on Houston's reality is important, this is not enough. To truly overcome the segregation of affluence, we must actually see the inequities. My tutoring and mentoring experiences were powerful because I saw students toiling away to reach their greatest aspirations only to be relegated to sub-par schools and underserved communities. These personal stories of real people with real dreams will leave an indelible mark and, I believe, ultimately provide the greatest motivation for service. If Rice seeks to foster a culture of volunteerism, it must help its students realize why community service is necessary and how they can actually make a difference. While there is no silver bullet, I would offer the following suggestions:
1. During Orientation Week, Rice should organize tours of Houston. Such initiatives would expose students to Houston's low-income, poverty-stricken neighborhoods and successful projects for which we could volunteer. The tours would offer both truth - Houston has real needs - and hope: Rice students can make a difference and, potentially, motivate greater service participation.
2. Rice should offer more classes that feature service-based learning, wherein we can apply our knowledge to local challenges. Some sociology courses (SOCI 301: Social Inequality and SOCI 470: Inequality and Urban Life) already do this, but other departments are lagging behind. For example, perhaps economics students studying tax policy could go to a local community center to help families complete tax forms, or students in introductory legal classes could volunteer at a legal-aid clinic, or students in introductory courses in science could offer complimentary tutoring services to low-income high school students.
3. The Rice University Department of Economics should offer courses on poverty and social mobility. While theoretical knowledge alone is not enough, understanding the facts may motivate some to serve. It is frankly appalling that, given this nation's wide income inequality and, for many, the inaccessibility of the American dream, Rice's Department of Economics offers a grand total of zero classes in these areas.
4. Rice should host more speakers or conferences focused on both Houston's challenges and its opportunities. By hearing firsthand accounts of the need for and impact of volunteering, we may become more likely to serve.
This policy list is neither perfect nor comprehensive, but it will hopefully spark a discussion about the segregation of affluence and its effects on community service. In fact, if the aforementioned initiatives are tested and proven unsuccessful, they should be discontinued, and the resources should be invested in other endeavors. While none of these recommendations will motivate thousands of students to volunteer, they may provide the little nudge that breaks through the segregation of affluence and inspires some students to serve and ultimately enhances Rice's culture of volunteerism. By building this collective drive to serve, we as Rice students can have an impact on solving some of this city's greatest problems. We will not eliminate Houston's poverty or the Houston Independent School District's achievement gap, but we can take small steps toward progress that together add up to one giant leap.
Neeraj Salhotra is a Sid Richardson College senior.
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