Robert Coles’ designed his semi-autobiographical piece, The Call of Service, to reawaken idealism and an interest in doing good in the world. As public managers, I can’t express how crucial it is that we remain steadfast and stolid in our spirit of service. However, Coles’ book is open and clear about the various reasons why we all volunteer. His discussions problems in communicating with those we try to help are insightful.
And, while I was not in complete agreement, he vigorously attacks the issue of real mentorship and who has the right to call themselves mentors. Service is without a doubt, our professional livelihood. Reading this book and discovering why volunteers choose the work they do can only help us to better serve our communities. This book does not tell us how to run an agency or how to do our work. Coles provides descriptions of concrete situations in many different kinds of volunteer activities, reporting carefully and avoiding a lot of unnecessary analysis.
He writes about what gets said, how people look, and when volunteer gestures lead or don’t lead to success. The first 3/4 of the book recount some of Coles’ favorite storied from his life of service; a life spent living amongst, interviewing, studying and writing about community servants, volunteers, and service workers. Coles is a gifted story teller and these stories are designed to make us feel good. He offers vignettes from his own life and experience, sharing personal reflections and insights.
He has an impressive respect for the people he meets and openness for learning and reassessing his own value system that we as public managers, built to come in and fix the broken, can certainly learn from. The last 1/4 of the book tries to draw moral conclusions from the Coles’ life stories. Here, Coles attempts the somewhat inappropriate feat of drawing large-scale conclusions from non-randomly picked anecdotal cases. The non-randomness of the form tends to be a little excluding for readers with more diverse perspectives than Coles’ own.
The book remains fairly unstructured and, despite the awkward conclusions, Coles successfully resists the temptation to offer reductive generalizations and hesitates to delineate basic categories and types of service (such as political and social activism, community service, charity, religious and patriotic service, etc. ). However, his insight into why volunteers become disillusioned-sometimes by ignoring the significance and impact of the work they and other volunteers do, sometimes by hoping too much and knowing too little, sometimes by not looking at themselves or ourselves-is notable.
The result of Coles’ approach is for us, refreshingly not a theory of voluntary service, but a multi-faceted picture of the service experience: the satisfactions and the hazards, the motivations and the consequences. As public managers in modern society, regretfully, there exists a drive to increase profit margins or focus on the bottom line-a concentrated movement away from the sense of community and more toward the individual; despite the fact that it is from the community that these profits are generated. So, in a world of convoluted moral guidance, Coles’ sense of community is a breath of fresh air.
His book includes the work of other prominent social servants: Dorothy Day, William Carlos Williams, Anna Freud and Ruby Bridges, a little Black girl who in 1961 fearlessly desegregated Boston Public Schools. As a little Black girl in 1989, I remember the fear of going to an all white school in Boston as almost paralyzing, yet Bridges, in 1961 no less faced the threats and attended school everyday without complaint. The courage of Ruby Bridges inspired Coles to search for what motivated her to face such adversity. He shares with us that her bravery came from a propensity to contribute to the greater cause.
Cutting a path through the defiant crowds of Boston, Ruby helped to cut a path through racism for future generations. Her strong sense of self-worth was spread throughout her community, her people. This story of Ruby Bridges is no doubt inspirational. As public managers, we can surely see how her heart of service would be an essential component of the superintendent, school administrator, or even secretary of educations agenda of desegregation. But it still has a bit of a, and please excuse my colloquialism “Margaret Mead studying the apes” type feel to it.