Community Based Learning Hosts Discussion on Toxic Charity

Kate McLaughlin ’21

News Editor

On Wednesday, February 6, a group of students and Community Based Learning (CBL) interns gathered in the Levis Browsing Room of Dinand for the Toxic Charity Dialogue Session. The session was led by CBL interns Paige Cohen ‘21, Caitlin Grant ‘21, and Yesenia Gutierrez ‘21, and Isabelle Jenkins, Associate Director of the Donelan Office of Community Based Learning.

The CBL interns began the session by having participants read an excerpt entitled, “The Anatomy of Giving” from “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).” The excerpt revealed the harmful effects that modern charity and community service work can have on the very people that are supposed to benefit from them. Participants broke up into small groups to relate the piece to their own experiences with CBL, after which the larger group reconvened to discuss.

The excerpt highlighted a poignant experience the author had with what he termed “one-way giving,” or the idea that charity ultimately creates dependency and does more harm than good. He described watching a low-income family with children have Christmas presents delivered to their door by a charity and then observing the children’s father leave the house in shame.

Photo by Hui Li ’21. Students share their own experiences during the discussion.

Participants discussed the unintended consequences of charity and the ways that students taking classes with CBL components can examine their motivations for doing community service work and work more with others, rather than just for others. Some students suggested asking questions and finding common ground with people so that both parties enter the relationship as equals, while others suggested becoming comfortable with silence.

Another focal point of the dialogue was how to understand privilege in relation to service work. Jenkins noted that the first step to making charity work nontoxic is to learn about it and recognize that privilege exists in the first place. Emma Davison ‘21 warned against telling a “single story” about privilege, and said that instead of feeling upset or guilty about one’s own privilege, one should identify the other party’s strengths and try to learn from those strengths.

Cohen enjoyed the opportunity to share her experiences with CBL and discuss the broader implications of community service with students who are equally passionate about civic engagement. She said, “I think the dialogue session was a great way for CBL students, both new and experienced, to come together and critically reflect on their CBL experiences. We had some really great conversation about how to approach service work with an eye toward reciprocal relationships, rather than ‘toxic’ charity. As one of the leaders of this session, I really enjoyed asking questions and listening to other students’ perspectives and stories, and I hope all of our participants found the session as meaningful as I did!”

Community Based Learning allows students to connect academic learning with civic engagement and involvement with partner organizations in the Worcester community. Through classes with CBL components, students gain a deeper understanding of content they learn in the classroom by integrating curricula with real-world experiences. According to 2012-2017 data from the Donelan Office’s website, 92 percent of students said that CBL helped them to connect their course material to the real world, 88 percent of students said that CBL was valuable for their personal growth, and 94 percent of faculty said that CBL increased both students’ interest in the subject matter and their engagement in class.

In addition to offering CBL courses, the Donelan Office also has the Community Based Learning Intern Program, which allows students who are passionate about civic engagement to build communication and leadership skills and increase their knowledge of local nonprofits and the City of Worcester. Students with questions about CBL should contact Isabelle Jenkins at or Michelle Sterk Barrett, Director of the Office, at

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