While community service might just be a resume booster for some students, Chaz Kellem, director of PittServes, believes service should be more substantial.
“College is designed to be a place where you learn about yourself, you learn about your field of study and you learn about the world in which you live,” Kellem said. “Service is an element that can connect all three of those together.”
Kellem led a discussion on community service for Thursday’s Community Cafe event — part of an ongoing series held every other week to facilitate interactive discussions and relationships amongst Pitt community members. The event is hosted by the Honors College on the 35th floor of the Cathedral of Learning and organized by Holly Hickling and Chris Chirdon, the Honors College community engagement adviser and systems analyst, respectively.
“It’s about trying to get people to alter their perspectives,” Chirdon said. “To get people to recognize that their entire lived perspective is one valid perspective, but there are many different other perspectives.”
During Thursday’s discussion, Kellem commented on the perspective he brought to the floor through his identities and his dedication to service. As a person of color and an individual with a disability, Kellem said that he advocates for diversity, inclusion and equity work.
“When you see the world from 3 feet off the ground, literally, your perspective has changed,” Kellem said. “When you roll around in a wheelchair all day and you don’t have any other option, your perspective has changed. When you are a person of color at a predominantly white institution, your perspective is different than everyone else’s.”
Prior to his role at PittServes, Kellem worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates and then with the Young Women’s Christian Association, an organization which seeks to eliminate racism and empower women. Through those roles, as well as his current position at PittServes, Kellem said he has worked hard to improve the community by facilitating diversity and inclusion.
“I am very committed to the community in which I live and the community which I call home. Personally, I am very active. I serve on a variety of boards,” said Kellem. “My personal goal is to make whatever I touch better than I found it.”
Kellem also discussed the goals of PittServes, which include removing barriers that would exclude certain people from participating in or receiving service. The organization coordinates days of service where students can serve the Pittsburgh community, such as Pitt Make A Difference Day, as well as international volunteer opportunities over spring break. It also supports programs that train college students to tutor young children, including Jumpstart and America Reads.
“I want to make sure if a person is in the LGBTQIA community, or if the person is African American, that where they’re going is safe and inclusive,” Kellem said.
Kellem also emphasized PittServes’ goal of making community service experiences transformational, not transactional. He said that many students look at service from a “what’s in it for me” point of view. His goal is for students who participate in service to leave a better person rather than just accumulate more service hours.
As a result of PittServes’ efforts to facilitate more meaningful service opportunities, Kellem said students would emerge more knowledgeable about the audiences that they’ve worked with and understand both their greater impact as well as their value in that experience.
“We pay attention to working with the community, not for the community,” Kellem said. “If we send students to Ecuador, you aren’t going there to take a bunch of pictures with people who live in that country for you to post on your social media page. You’re gonna get your hands dirty. You’re going to be sweating, working on projects that are identified by the folks in that country.”
In response to a student question relating to gentrification, Kellem further highlighted that PittServes is trying to make sure that the service they facilitate is both needed as well as wanted by the communities in which they work.
“We are not fans of going in, doing something warm and fuzzy, leaving and not touching that thing ever again,” Kellem said. “We don’t want to create or force service on any community that doesn’t want or need it.”
When it comes to his current focus, Kellem said he tries to get students to ask themselves two questions.
“Who and what do I call community? And for whom I am responsible?” Kellem said. “To me, those are two great questions when you think about service.”
After the event, Anna Baskin, a first-year computer science major, said she thought Kellem’s remarks about ethical and sustained service struck a chord with service experiences she’s witnessed in peers.
“I had a lot of friends who went on missions trips to Ecuador, and then they came back having painted a brick wall with smiley faces and taken pictures with it,” Baskin said.
The Honors College also pushes students to be active and make an impact in areas they believe are important, according to Hickling. She voiced insight that connected the importance of community service to the purpose of Community Cafe.
“What I want to see is students going from being inspired and having ideas to actually doing the thing,” Hickling said. “Empathy turned into action.”
As he wrapped up the discussion, Kellem emphasized one final thought.
“Education is a privilege in many capacities,” he said. “Whether it be things like activism and advocacy or philanthropy, we want you to do something. We want everyone to understand their civic responsibility for whatever they define as community.”