Opinions

When Rhetoric Damages: a conversation about Working for Worcester and how we ought to do better

Izzi Lambrecht ’19

“You are undeniably changing the city.” “Who do we do this for!?” “For the kids! For the kids! For the kids!” They continue to chant for another two minutes or so. Next comes the speech about how significant this work is for the city and how important the volunteers are. “You are really making a difference today!” says State Representative Dan Donahue, a Holy Cross alum.

This rhetoric will persuade businesses to donate money. It will motivate otherwise apathetic volunteers to commit a few hours of their Saturday. It will create compelling PR on the College’s instagram. It’s rhetoric that I know is meant to be harmless… perhaps, even inspiring. But, on the flip side, this rhetoric reeks of classism and the savior complex that are so prevalent at Holy Cross.

Last fall, while leading the Worcester immersion trip, the city manager and his special assistant highlighted these very themes as central problems to Holy Cross’ relationship with Worcester. They had named volunteer campus organizations as a clear way that the school does meaningful work, yet falls short. I had quickly nodded along, agreeing with both of them. As the SPUD Community Organizing Intern, I continued to be engaged in conversations with students and staff to discuss students’ perceptions of the city and the tensions of volunteer work. Standing at Working for Worcester, with hundreds of volunteers surrounding me, chanting these three words, I was shocked to realize that the problems with the rhetoric used were not obvious to leaders, site directors, and many of the event’s volunteers. As I said before, this chant did not stand alone. Interspersed in the chanting were speakers reminding us that we are changing the city…. that it is time to give back…. that we cannot even imagine how many people’s lives we are transforming.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in volunteer work. In fact, I believe in a day such as Working for Worcester where we have the opportunity to celebrate the city and add to its richness through a day of fellowship and of making ourselves useful. For these reasons, I agreed to be a site manager. That said, standing in the Worcester Common, with my stomach churning at the speeches, I knew that I simply did not believe in the rhetoric that shaped Working for Worcester this year.

I understand that W4W objectively focuses on sites where kids work and play; however, I think it would be worthwhile for the program to consider how they can pitch the event in a way that truly does embrace Worcester, and that veers away from savior language. In the ‘for the kids’ rhetoric, we imply that parents are not able to take care of their own kids. We imply that they are not taking care of their kids’ space. We imply that the kids of Worcester need us college students to change the city. In each, we humiliate, and take dignity from the people of our supposed community.

Again, though this event does objectively focus on youth spaces, rhetoric such as this makes it seem that the only thing in Worcester worthy of our attention is the kids. Every single Holy Cross student who volunteered at W4W has lived in Worcester for at least a year. The co-chairs have lived here for four years. I was ashamed to be standing at the event in a red, site director shirt being expected to find the ‘for the kids’ to be inspiring. I was ashamed to be a “leader” at an event that appeared to be about saving the kids of the city that I love so much.

The rhetoric used, and the ways it focused on transforming and changing suggests that Worcester is dependent on us. Moreover, it is the epitome of the very themes that the people and the government of Worcester are critical of in regards to Holy Cross. It is demonstrative of the fact that many Holy Cross students only seem to engage with our city when they are saving. It suggests that not only are we geographically situated above Worcester, but many volunteers and student leaders appear to believe that we are in fact above it and its residents. Adding on to all this, for those volunteers who have not had the opportunity to get to know Worcester, the rhetoric I have described legitimizes patronizing language towards our community.


Worcester is a city with vibrant culture, beautiful art, opportunities to meet new people, parks to run in, music to vibe with, and local shops and cafes to relax in. Are there struggles present in Worcester? Of course. Among other issues, there exists poverty, inequality, an opioid epidemic, and homelessness. However, not one of these issues are exceptional to Worcester. I would love to see volunteers, student leaders, and the College choosing to embrace Worcester for all of its goodness along with its suffering. I would love to see us treating it as our community that we value, instead of our thing to fix. And ultimately, rather than being a way to save and to change while collecting the ‘perfect’ social media post and resume boost, I would love to see time off campus in Worcester become an opportunity to truly engage with the city we ought to all love. Changing the perceptions of Worcester will be no easy task on our Holy Cross campus, which is why it is of the utmost importance that leaders involved in the city (W4W, SPUD, CBL, SGA, and AIP) step up, engage with the depths of our community, practice intentionality, and commit to paving the way forward. 

It is about time that we, as people for and with others, do better, Holy Cross. 

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21 replies »

  1. The idea that the phrase “for the kids” is patronizing and implies that the parents are not doing their jobs, is ridiculous. For the kids is a phrase used in various volunteer and service organizations including Penn State’s THON fundraiser for childhood cancer. Additionally, W4W is not a Holy Cross organization, while it may be founded by Holy Cross and primarily run by us, people from across the Worcester community were involved in the event. To attack one of the one days of the year in which Holy Cross kids actually get involved in there community and strive to do good seems pointless and ignorant of the true good that W4W can and has done for the area.

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  2. Hi Izzi, your article was well written, however I am very confused at a few major points of it. You called out State Rep. Dan Donahue for saying “you are really making a difference today”, yet you didn’t prove him wrong. From what I have seen and heard W4W built playgrounds that weren’t there on Friday, so I am appalled to see there are people who do not believe W4W is making a difference, especially as there are tangible results from the past number of years they have been operating, where differences have been made.

    I agree with the prior comment, as W4W is using their “for the kids” rhetoric to describe the reasoning behind their investment, as they are building playgrounds legitimately for the kids. They are not building playgrounds because they assume parents are not doing a good job of parenting in Worcester, rather they are trying to provide a resource to help kids develop good recreational and social habits while they are away from their parents, and in school.

    My last point of contention, is if you were a site manager within W4W, why did you not try to change their rhetoric prior to their big day? If you found the rhetoric surrounding the day frustrating, why did you let it continue throughout the planning process? By letting the problematic rhetoric continue, aren’t you just as much of a problem as those who created the rhetoric?

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  3. I disagree with this. First of all, “for the kids” does not suggest that volunteers consider themselves “savoirs”. You can do something for someone without thinking you are a savoir. Secondly, the point of building and improving areas for kids is not because parents don’t take care of their kids spaces. After all, the sites were public places, public gardens, and schools- therefore not the responsibility of individual parents to take care of and improve for their individual children.
    Working for Worcester, and the amazing leaders who put so much work into the event, seeks to improve Worcester and leave it better than it was found. This by no means suggests that it is something that needs fixing. Why would you not want to make something better if you had the opportunity to do so?

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  4. I never thought about it this way. Really opened my eyes to things. Im glad this is starting a conversation.

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  5. I, too, participated in W4W last Saturday (as I have done in the past) and I, too, felt uncomfortable by the rhetoric at the pep rally. Izzi, thank you for giving words to why “for the kids” and Dan Donahue’s “making a difference” comments were uncomfortable for me. While I think we can all agree that Working for Worcester has a generally positive, tangible impact on the community, there are certainly aspects that Izzi described (like the “with” and the immersion into OUR city) that can be improved. As HC students, we know through Catholic Social Teaching that “real change” comes from charitable work AND social justice working together – both feet are essential to “making a difference.” Let’s move past just charitable work and incorporate social justice into making W4W even better. Whether you agree with this article or not, we have to all commend Izzi’s bravery to be critical of something that most Holy Cross students regard with high esteem, and in such a public way. She’s certainly braver than I am as I’m choosing to remain anonymous.

    And lastly, after all, if we learn anything at Holy Cross, it’s to be constantly critical of the institutions we are in, for how else will we become better as a society if we don’t challenge our perspectives? Thanks, Izzi, you rock.

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  6. Thanks for sharing. I was following the College’s Instagram page on the day of the event and some aspects of the event are actually a reason I am considering not coming to the school. I grew up receiving such charity and was always the kid people were excited to help. Savior complexes don’t feel good to receive and I am really happy to see that there are people at Holy Cross willing to stand up to them.

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  7. Izzi,

    Although I agree that there exists somewhat of a vibe of “toxic charity” in any setting that includes privileged white kids helping out underprivileged inner-city kids, I don’t see the point of your overly harsh critique of W4W. There are certainly institutional barriers stemming from the way in which Holy Cross carries out its community engagement, yet I don’t understand how you can lump W4W into this category.

    As another student noted above, the “for the kids” mantra has nothing to do with W4W’s actual mission and ideals. It is widely used by countless charities and fundraisers throughout the country. It is simply a fun chant used on build-day to keep things lighthearted and cannot be considered serious rhetoric. The serious rhetoric lies within the organization’s countless board meetings, fundraisers, and outreach campaigns. The serious rhetoric stems from the hours of discussion with people within the actual community, a board compromised of Worcester residents and employees, and a leadership team filled with Worcester natives and Worcester Public School grads. When you boil down the rhetoric of W4W to “for the kids”, you completely overlook the amazing and impactful work done by thousands not only at the school but from countless organizations within the community. The volunteers from all over Worcester, the site-leaders, the janitors, the teachers, the principals, and many more are all robbed of the time, money, and effort they put into improving the infrastructure for the amazing community that lives here. Unlike when you contend that W4W’s work ignores the great things already happening in Worcester, it instead highlights the amazing residents and leaders who help coordinate these efforts. Even if you think we as a school need to address systemic challenges in the community, does that mean that we should let the playgrounds crumble and the parks fill with the trash when we can work in conjunction with the leaders in the community to make a difference?

    With the entire perception of our student body coming under fire due to the recent viral Uber video, are we seriously going to spend our time criticizing a non-school charity instead of assessing the root of the town-and-gown problem itself? The problems you identify lie within our student body and our administration. They have absolutely nothing to do with a charity that was started seven years ago to address the same exact Holy Cross-Worcester divide that you are identifying. With the three students from the Uber video still walking around our campus, and with an absolutely lackadaisical response by the administration, it seems like shooting ourselves in the foot if we identify W4W as the most of worries.

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  8. Wow I was not expecting this! I am so relieved to finally read somebody openly writing about how problematic charity is at Holy Cross, and more specifically W4W. Though I know many will disagree with me, the event deserves to be called out. It was the college’s headlines for a whole day. It was a rally in a very public and visible space in Worcester. It is what I keep seeing in my feed. “Holy Cross does this! We did this!” everybody exclaims.

    For all of the good press the event got, it is really nice to see one post be openly critical. Maybe this will be enough to pressure students and campus organizations to put just a tiny bit more thought into how they move about their charity work.

    P.S. I can’t help but think the only reason so many go along is because of the social capital some of the organizers hold.

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  9. As a Worcester resident and HC student, I cannot express enough how much I agree with this article. While I do think that charity is necessary to improve the city on a surface level, that is unfortunately where most of the relationships between students and the city starts and ends. The statement that “in one day, we changed the city” (as one of the co-chairs of Working for Worcester wrote) is insulting to people like me, who have lived in this city for 22 years. Worcester appreciates your help and I am full of gratitude for those who dedicated a year to improving school areas for our youth, but you did NOT change the city. You have ASSISTED in the city’s growth, but you are in NO WAY responsible for its holistic improvement. The city changes, improves, regresses, and runs the gambit on trials and tribulations every single day. I hope that future organizers of this event remember that there are two feet to the model of Catholic social teaching – one foot is charity, which you’ve beautifully done, but the other foot refers to social justice work in which structures of inequality are tackled at its core. Unfortunately, the other shoe has yet to drop. I hope that future leaders of this event realize that while they are making a positive impact, they must also own their intentions. How committed are you to the city in which you live? If the answer doesn’t go beyond building playgrounds, then you have some serious self-reflection to do.

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  10. Izzi,
    You made a lot of solid points, however, from site manager to site manager, I found it pretty shocking and disappointing that you waited until now to share all of this to the public and the rest of the Working 4 Worcester team. Let’s be real, the rally was not the first time you heard “for the kids” being said, so why did you join an organization under a mantra that you didn’t align with?

    There is no doubt that toxic charity and the savior complex exits on this campus and on college campuses all over the world. I would even go to say that a lot of people at Holy Cross know and understand that this exists. I appreciate that you acknowledge that it is not just W4W. But if you’re going to make this about the issues with volunteering at HC in general, don’t use one organization as a general example on its own. Moreover, to say that all Holy Cross students do not go out and enjoy the community just like you is actually far from the truth.

    The issue that I have with your article is all of relationships, collaboration and good that comes out of the W4W project that you deliberately chose to leave out of the conversation. This past Saturday, I spent the day working at a site alongside volunteers from Worcester and the surrounding areas, not just Holy Cross students. Like another comment said, this is not just a Holy Cross project and that deserves to be said loud and clear. Seeing the joy from the directors of the school I was working with was something that I can never forget. We worked with them, not for them.

    The rhetoric of the speeches and the mantra of W4W may have the opportunity to be altered, but in the spirit of collaboration, why didn’t you strike up a conversation about it earlier than later? Even now, what do you suggest? How can we all change? How can we be better?

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  11. Izzi,
    It’s very disappointing to read this article and for you to tarnish the work of so many volunteers improving the sites where children play in Worcester. I’m curious if you interviewed parents of Worcester to formulate your conclusions. Although I’m all for expressing one’s opinion, please don’t infer others feel the way you do. I know several people involved in W4W and they certainly don’t feel they are saviors. This is hurtful to all those W4W volunteers.

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  12. Izzi’s article by no means tarnishes the work of the volunteers; she takes no issue with the work done, but rather with the way many (but not all) students talk and think about what they are doing. A day’s work of volunteering can be constructive, but if the rhetoric is damaging what was really accomplished? Holy Cross students – myself included – need to take a good look at ourselves and how we engage in our community.

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  13. I wish I heard as many of students who are offended about this article speak up when students on this campus trash Worcester. I wish that every time someone on this campus referred to the places I have grown up in and loved as trashy or dangerous that they would speak. I wish that when I hear tour guides explaining how the gates and cops make us all “safe” from the “scary” city, that someone would point out that Worcester is actually far safer than most people think. I wish that every time a group Holy Cross students treated one of my friends working at a restaurant in the city horribly that at least one of my peers would speak up.

    What Izzy says is true, we have fantastic and large service programs which do great work! No one who participated should be ashamed for that work, in fact, they should feel proud of that work. What they should not do is use that pride as an excuse to not engage with the city in every-day, consistent ways that do not include congratulations. Because you don’t get a round of applause for going to the WAM or Elm Park or the Sprinkler Factory. No one congratulates you for leaving a decent tip. No one cheers you on for not being judgemental of buildings and spaces you don’t find “impressive enough.” No one does that because that’s just what it means to live in a city, and if Holy Cross students want to live and become strong community members in Worcester and not just do service here, then they need to do that stuff too. Maybe then I can go home and not have to hear horror stories every time I say where I go to school.

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  14. Hi, everybody. I’m glad that we are able to continue this conversation together, and that people are sharing their ideas through the comments. Though I do not intend to get into each comment (as I stand by what I wrote), I would like to specify that I was asked to be a site leader last minute. I was not involved in the planning of this event, and was originally planning to volunteer with SGA. I was happy to go where I was needed, which is why I agreed to be a site leader. When I read “for the kids” in an email a couple days before the event, I was indeed uncomfortable. People are correct… I could have said something then, and perhaps I should have. That said, my reluctance was due to the fact that I was a volunteer being looped in last minute, who had not been part of the strategical planning of this event. I assumed good intentions, and went into the Saturday of the event with an open mind. The day of, I was disheartened to realize how central the “for the kids” mantra was to the rally and therefore the event in general. A line in an email and a chant that people rally around are undeniably different. I did not realize that this mantra would appear to be the fuel people needed to get through the day. While I respect the many hours put into this event as well as the important ways that we were able to work with our community through this event, I believe the rhetoric of this event was flawed. I believe it is essential to think critically about our work and the implementation of it.
    This was not the first time that I have expressed my opinions about Holy Cross’ relationship with Worcester. That said, given the publicity of W4W, I felt strongly that my opinion needed to be conveyed through more than an in person conversation. Thanks again for all of your ideas and opinions.

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  15. The first thing to pop up on my Facebook feed this morning was Izzi Lambrecht’s article in The Spire. I read the headline (When Rhetoric Damages: a conversation about Working for Worcester and how we ought to do better) and my first thought was “not without coffee”. I say that because the very headline seems critical (rhetoric) and preachy (we ought to do better).
    I should mention that most of you don’t know me, and I am shifting lanes (and leaving my comfort zone) to share my opinion. I would be the first to tell you that this is none of my business, but there it was on my feed. I am doing this because along with students from all over the country to visit my hometown in the last 5 years, Izzi did, so she is one of ours… one of mine.
    I read the article, then I read the responses, then I re-read the article. I have never been to W4W although it is on my bucket list. It is something that I want to do because for about 30 years Holy Cross students have been visiting my town, and surrounding towns, here in southwest Virginia. They come, work their tails off, change us, leave a part of themselves, and hopefully take some of us back with them.
    My initial reading of the article left me disappointed. So critical, so challenging, so vocal as to her experience. Where is the “thanks” to the people who thought enough to ask her to lead? Where is the “hey volunteers, you did a good job”? Where is the humble suggestion that we “might” need to look at things? It is in there, but it didn’t just jump out at me. I was too busy being impressed with the urgency to see it at first, and by the way, there won’t always be someone there saying thanks, but you do it anyway.
    You guys recently had a “sit-in” right? Not everyone agreed with that, but you drew attention to your issue. Much has been said in the last few years about when we should stand, or kneel, and when we shouldn’t, and sometimes when you take a position you believe in, you get criticized.
    I can’t comment on whether I agree with Izzi, because I wasn’t there, but I can tell you this: She believes in identifying problems, and she believes in finding solutions. She knows that the very article she submitted would not have had the same weight, the same merit, if she had offered it anonymously. I don’t know if I would agree with every part of it, because as I said, I wasn’t there, but I can tell you this…. It was very brave. It was sharp and critical, but to her it was on point. It made me, all these miles away, want to be a part of W4W even more, because we CAN do better.
    Perhaps there was a better time to bring up these points for her, but a man once said “it’s never too late to do the right thing”. Would she change her timing? Her tone? Perhaps, but I read this as being encouraging more than critical, but in reading the responses here calling it a waste of time or worse? Nah. If a call to action is a waste of your time, you probably weren’t there to start with. Volunteer. Do something. Be the change.
    This article is a challenge to all of us, and I respect that everyone doesn’t want to “go on record” for whatever reason, but if you are going to be hateful or mean, remaining anonymous will not add to your point. When she was here, Izzi was one of the quiet ones. Right or wrong, she stood up.
    Izzi, I am proud of you.

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  16. I felt defensive and angry the first time I read this article. As Denny wrote: Izzi does show some value for W4W, but it is not the focus of the article. It admittedly didn’t feel great not being praised. I also feel guilty knowing that I had participated in the chanting and because I know part of the reason I signed up had been for the resume boost that she had labeled.
    It’s been a day since I read it and I feel like I’ve developed a better understanding of where Izzi is coming from. She never said peoples desire to do charity work was bad, and honestly she still seems to hold the benefit of the doubt. She did explain what poor implementation felt/looked like to her and her description felt piercing. Like I said, it wasn’t a great feeling, but I am glad that I was pushed to think outside of the box on this.
    Being challenged and realizing the ways you messed up never feel great. I guess thank you for making me check myself. Even when you don’t classify yourself as a bad person, doing work for people isn’t enough. I wish I could redo some of the comments I made on Saturday, and will do better going forward. I hope others will also.

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  17. As a HC alum, I do agree that at times there was a “savior complex” among many Holy Cross service organizations. However, I think that this article would have been more accurate if it were to highlight actual Holy Cross funded organizations such as SPUD, CBL, Appa/Spring Break Immersion Programs, Holy Cross Cares Day, etc. Working for Worcester, barely even recognized by Holy Cross, is merely one of the many service days/organizations/clubs/internships that contribute to the narcissism often found among the “men and women for a with others.” I think it is unfair to assign this “savior complex” issue among HC students as a W4W issue, rather than seeing it as a entire service issue at the school.

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  18. I think a lot of service organizations on campus don’t feel inclusive, and I think that’s because of the people who choose to join them, their mostly rich&white identity, and their lack of understanding to what people who aren’t like them go through. I don’t think a lot of volunteers understand or even are willing to try to understand. This article has gotten a lot of attention and I’d be shocked if students in the clubs ‘concerned citizen’ listed off haven’t read this. I’d be shocked if the majority of them weren’t defensive (along with commenters). Izzy makes really important points. I don’t know Izzy, where she comes from, or if I even trust her. Her writing has gotten a shit ton of attention though which is good because I do agree with both Izzy and ‘concerned citizen’ in that the way we do charity around here is problematic. To those defensive (in W4W or the clubs ‘concerned citizen’ listed): if you want to do your work well, please think about what emotional work might be needed of you

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  19. As an underprivileged, and youth of this community. I will say that I can agree. I do feel relieved to hear this, but I can take many forms of support towards W4W as well. W4W is something I really wanted to contribute to. I live near Holy Cross, and I will say that the engagement in my community is lacking. I do spend an abundance of time in heavily diverse environments, and on the Clark University campus. By diverse I mean the privileged white male, pretentious liberals etc. At times I lay jealous. What I observe, and what is available to us students are much more accessible… not at Holy Cross.

    You say that the rhetoric implies that the community of Worcester can not take care of its youth. I think that’s a bit excessive to say. I can examine the attitudes of many Worcester locals and students from a fairly powerless position. I think you are ignoring many layers of privilege that still exist, and will forlong exist.

    The attitude of a “resume booster” will always be existing in the contexts of our society & government. This is a reflection of privilege and education. In community high schools this exist too. There is just a general disinterest, and selfishness that exists. It promotes a lack of civic interest.

    This so called “savior” attitude can’t really exist in those who have the driven power to make change, yes? W4W is fairly small, and newer. Where else do we see action? Let’s not target this W4W initiative, but rather a general attitude that has much deeper roots. I think you take an outlook of morality rather than action, and are undermining the education as well as success that many have worked for. Colleges are places to grow, too.

    To me this is an extension of that Holy Cross attitude. It’s sort of pessimistic besides that. We will need to collaborate with each other. And we will need to learn from each other. I feel like this opinion denies that a bit; as if this lack of engagement in Worcester among Holy Cross students is only their faults. This cycle will continue on for years. Yet, we really can’t control the futility, and helplessness we can face with the troubles of another person

    Not only for I think that the building of playgrounds does not really concern Worcester as a place, but also as a changing dynamic in our society as a whole. I just want to desperately separate this from W4W. I think you should be apart of a greater change rather than try to argue against this much smaller & honestly positive portion of it. If you want change… play by the game. It’s not easy to strip people of their identities. There isn’t always much wrong with it, for there is ignorance. If people act with ignorance there is not much to criticize rather than pity. Although, its hella annoying.

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