CBL Students Confront “Toxic Charity”

Kelly Gallagher ‘22

Chief Features Editor

Service work often seems ubiquitous at Holy Cross. Currently, there are 39 sections of 28 courses with a Community Based Learning component, and SPUD is the biggest student organization on campus. Given this, it’s important for participating students to step back and reflect on their experiences. The Donelan Office offered students the opportunity to do so on Wednesday, February 12, with their dialogue session “‘Toxic Charity’ and Getting Started with CBL.” 

The discussion began with students reading an excerpt from Robert D. Lupton’s “Toxic Charity.” The excerpt recalled Lupton’s experience realizing that the charity work he had been ardently performing for years was actually harmful to the recipients. Lupton spent most Christmases delivering toys and food to the poor, but when he spent Christmas as the guest of a low-income family, he saw that the parents were deeply embarrassed about being unable to provide presents for their children. After this realization, he paid closer attention to his interactions with his recipients, and “noticed how seldom recipients gave [him] eye contact,” how recipients received charity with “head and shoulders bent slightly forward, self-effacing smiles, meek ‘thank-yous’” (Lupton, 34). In addition, he noticed how both members of the exchange became expectant – recipients expected the free goods and service, and volunteers expected gratitude. 

Lupton refers to this phenomenon as toxic charity, named after its harmful effects on both the people intended to benefit from it and the people delivering it. With this concept in mind, attendees of the dialogue broke into small groups to analyze their own service experiences and recall if they had ever been involved in an exchange like those described by Lupton. Students reflected on their intentions in performing service, as well as whether their gains were equal to those of recipients. 

The attendees reconvened to share the highlights of their discussions. CBL intern Julianne Esteves ‘22 touched on the importance of approaching service with the intention of building relationships and learning from others, not just helping people with less. Participants also discussed how understanding service is a process, as is building relationships. When a participant asked for tips in building relationships with the people at their CBL site, interns said that it’s about the little moments, like remembering to ask a student how their test went. 

After the discussion, The Spire contacted Isabelle Jenkins, Associate Director of the Donelan Office, to ask what she hopes students will get out of the CBL experience, and why it’s important to address the potential of toxic charity in order to achieve that. In an email response, Ms. Jenkins wrote: “In an increasingly siloed world, it is my hope that participating in CBL enables students to have encounters and conversations with communities and people they otherwise might not have the opportunity to while simultaneously enhancing their classroom-based learning. ‘Toxic Charity’ can be a guide for students about how to have those encounters, as it encourages reciprocity and mutuality. Students have as much to learn and receive as they do to give in the partnerships they build through CBL.”

For students who are looking to deepen their understanding of the CBL program and the service experience in general, the Donelan Office always welcomes questions and discussions. Students can also increase their involvement by becoming a CBL intern. The Donelan Office is accepting applications until March 4. For more information, check your emails or contact the Donelan Office. The Donelan Office is located in Smith 334.

Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those Whom They Help, and How to Reverse It. HarperOne, 2012. 

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