What is “Do Good Well” Anyway?
Here at the Ginsberg Center, we believe in the power of “doing good”--whether that is volunteering with a community, advocating for policy change, fundraising for a cause, or other activities along the Pathways to civic engagement and community change. But we also know that it’s not just what we do that matters, but how we do it that shapes our impact in society and the world. So, the Center’s goal is to work together, in community to learn how to be better partners and actors in social change.
With this goal in mind, we’ve designed the Do Good Well campaign to bring the Ginsberg Center’s core principles into action. To do so, we must understand how to work collectively rather than individually, address power dynamics that impact our collective work, and evaluate the impact of our community engagement.
With that being said...consider these Provocative Questions!
We hope these questions will make you stop and think about your own principles and practices in communities. They are not easy questions to grapple with, and there often isn’t a “right” or “wrong” answer. Instead, these questions provide an opportunity to reflect, to be honest with yourself and others, and maybe admit some hard truths. Ultimately though, the process of working through these questions is the critical part, and through that, we hope to all become better and more intentional members of our groups and communities.
We hope you’ll join us in this process. The Ginsberg Center team can provide a space for thinking through these questions and applying them to your community-engaged work in your journey to Do Good Well. If you want to meet with someone from our team to see how these questions connect to your organization, course, or initiative, fill out our Support Request Form, and we'd be happy to meet with you.
In the U.S., we tend to think of all community service as “doing good” or “giving back.” There are external pressures to do community service so that we seem empathetic, engaged, and selfless. Because of this pressure, we see resumes, CVs, and applications that boast multiple service experiences. While there’s nothing wrong with engaging in various service opportunities (we encourage it!) and putting such service on your resume or benefiting from this work, we also must ask questions about the intent and impact of your engagement. Why are you doing the work you’re doing? Are you only doing this work for the resume experience? Who benefits from the work you do in communities? How do you know?
Reflection is an important tool before, during, and after community engagement projects to help you clarify and assess your motives, intentions, goals, and accomplishments. Here are some suggestions to help guide you:
Before you sign up and begin a project:, jot down a list of reasons why you want to engage with this work. Keep this list in mind throughout the process.
Talk with a friend, TA, or another person participating with you about what you’re hoping to learn from community partners. This can help clarify your goals and keep you accountable.
If you are planning to include these community engagement experiences on your resume, focus on how you collaborated with the community, rather than what you “gave” them.
First, let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with going to Detroit for community service. There are great community partners and organizations based in Detroit that are doing impactful work. (You can check out Connect2Community for more information). However, it’s important to ask yourself honestly if service work is the only reason you’re going to Detroit--a mindset that vastly and dangerously minimizes the city’s history, culture, and vibrant communities by casting your efforts through a limited lens of saviorship.
All too often, those both outside and within the city of Detroit think of the city primarily in terms of its pressing social issues. Certainly, there is a storied and substantive history of structural racism and organized abandonment in Detroit. It’s also a place where residents have already been doing community-led and organized work on social issues for generations. Yet, frequently, people “parachute in” to Detroit under the guise of “helping,” which both undermines and ignores the crucial work already being done--and does more to exacerbate difficulties than to relieve them.
The bottom line is this: don’t be a part of that legacy. It is imperative that you are intentional about how you engage with the city of Detroit. And yes, this applies even if you’re from the suburbs of the City.
We also encourage you to invest in local businesses and communities with your time and money. You have the opportunity to support local initiatives, organizations, and businesses that are committed to the people and future of Detroit.
During your time at the University, you might go to restaurants and other local businesses, you might spend time exploring the city or engage in service work in Detroit. In whatever ways you engage with the City of Detroit, it is vital that you do so with deep reflection, intentionality, and you leave your ego at the door.
Many of us know at least one or two places in our areas that are labeled “bad neighborhoods.” Some of us are even from these places. But have you ever sat down and actually asked yourself: “Why do I think of this neighborhood as a ‘bad’ neighborhood? What assumptions am I making, and how did I learn this”? And we very rarely ask, “What does ‘bad’ even mean?”
Before we can challenge the assumptions being made about “bad” neighborhoods, we first need to interrogate what those assumptions are in the first place. “Bad” is often code for Black and Brown communities, regardless of actual characteristics. It carries with it an implication that these neighborhoods are poor and unsafe, and obscures practices of organized abandonment like red-lining.
Since we’ve been taught that “bad” neighborhoods only have problems, we might approach communities and people only looking for what is “broken'' and in need of fixing. We are taught to think, “What do I bring to the table?” and “How can I fix this problem?”
But here’s the reality: This is centering ourselves in social change work. Instead, we must center these communities and the people in them. We must celebrate the skills already present, confront the structural connections to community priorities, and support the work people have done and will continue to do long after we leave.
With that in mind, here are some actions you can take:
Spend some time asset mapping before your engagement begins: taking a look at the community in question and “mapping” out its strengths and assets.
Pay attention to who you’re learning about the community from. If you notice a source using deficit-based language, it might be time to move to a new or different source.
Deficit Framing and Saviorism (the desire to “save” or “fix” without recognizing or accounting for the systemic issues like racism and classism that created these inequities in the first place) often feed into one another.
We understand that people have busy lives, and that sometimes, it’s only possible to commit to one day of service for a cause you’re passionate about days of service can be helpful and beneficial “on-ramps” into engaging in more sustained ways. They can also in and of themselves be vital, meeting an immediate need (for example, relief after a natural disaster).
We also recognize that some folks may not be able to dedicate an extended period of time and energy to community-engaged work. Free time, especially sustained and consistent free time, can be a significant sign of social and economic privilege, as many spend all their time working and supporting themselves and their families. The Ginsberg Center wholeheartedly supports those who do what they can, when they can.
However, real, sustainable change occurs when individuals and organizations commit to building relationships with others and investing time, effort, and resources (often financial or skills) into communities in a consistent and sustained manner.
Still, there are ways we can deepen days of service to be beneficial and helpful to communities. Having communities set the boundaries and goals of service also helps to address power imbalances and provides a strong foundation for long-term partnerships. Being open and honest with ourselves about our own capabilities and abilities of commitment is also crucial to cultivating these partnerships.
Before engaging in a day of service, or when deciding if you should, start by asking yourself the following questions:
Are the goals of the day of service co-created with the community?
How are you including community voices in the planning of the day of service?
How did you determine the need(s) to be met? Were they identified by the community?
For those serving, in what ways are you preparing before the day of service?
As you plan your service, decide what will be long-term (sustained) from your day of service. What are you taking with you? What long-term benefit will remain in the community?
Whether it’s a Day of Service or more sustained engagement, the planning, education, and execution must be done in partnership with your community partner and/or the community.
Before you start a new nonprofit organization or student organization, there are some questions you should ask:
What is your motivation?
Are you wanting to be the face of the organization or are you wanting to be part of a collective moving towards sustainable change?
What makes your organization different from the dozens (if not more) of nonprofits/student orgs doing the exact same thing? If you are duplicating efforts, why?
Could the space and resources you need to create and sustain a new organization be better allocated to existing efforts?
If you want to be involved and just didn’t know another way of doing so, check out Connect2Community, or reach out to the Ginsberg Center at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect to nonprofit and community organizations already doing the work you’re passionate about. For more information about existing student organizations, check out Maize Pages!
If after looking through these resources — or a good old-fashioned internet search — you want to move forward with starting a new nonprofit/student org, and want to do it the best you can, the Ginsberg Center is here to help. We offer advising sessions and guidance to students interested in social change work. Just reach out to email@example.com to schedule your session; we would be more than happy to help! The Center for Campus Involvement is also a great resource, particularly if you’re wanting to start a new student organization.
Research is, of course, a valuable and necessary tool in social change work. It can be helpful in providing an aerial view of a situation and bringing in comparable situations which can deepen our understanding. However, research is not the only--or even the most complete--component of learning about communities and social change work. Lived experience is absolutely essential to Doing Good Well, and research cannot fully capture lived experiences.
No amount of surveys, questionnaires, interviews, or graphs can accurately understand and convey what it is like to live through whatever situation you’re studying. We can only get that perspective and knowledge from listening to and honoring lived experiences, and building relationships with folks in communities.
When doing this, one of the questions we must contend with is “Who gets to tell these stories? Do I/we have the right to?” We cannot answer this for you, but asking this question and grappling with the answer is an important step in understanding your own positionality and when you may be overstepping and need to step back.
This is where cultural humility can really come in handy. Cultural humility is “a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of [their] own beliefs and cultural identities.” (Source) Starting relationships and discussions of lived experiences from a foundation of cultural humility can help start things off on the right foot and enable a more open and honest exchange.
Ultimately, research and lived experience are both vital, and without both and without genuine respect for lived experiences, it is difficult to Do Good Well. So what does this process look like?
Find resources that highlight lived experiences. This might be a news story, a documentary, a book, ethnographic research, or even a YouTube video.
Do not presume to understand what someone’s life is like. If you have invested in a relationship with a community partner you may be able to ask them for their own lived experiences. But remember, you may be asking them to perform emotional labor and are not entitled to a response.
If they answer, believe them! (Yes, even if responses are contradictory. Remember, no two people are the same and will experience things differently.)
Implement this knowledge in your research and in your action plans moving forward, with community members as equal partners.
When measuring the success of an initiative, don’t rely just on the numbers! Ask your partners and those living in the community. What do they have to say?
We can help you Do Good Well by putting the Ginsberg Center's core principles into action in your community-engaged student organization.
- Click here to learn more about Doing Good Well!
- Explore our resource platform for student organizations
Make sure to sign up for the tri-annual DGW Student Org Newsletter to get resources sent right to your inbox!