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.