Frances Moore Lappe wrote a piece on Huffington Post amid the inauguration festivities this week asking whether “service” is really the best word/tool to use when intensifying national civic engagement efforts.

My own hesitation about the service frame is simple: If I serve, someone else is being served. If I serve, I act, but the other — the beneficiary — does not. Making ourselves servants, we might also ignore our own legitimate needs as well as be tempted to imagine we already know what others’ needs are. In any case “service” seems to create two classes: the givers and the receivers.

And that’s a big problem. Doesn’t this dichotomy help blind us to the reality of the human condition that Martin Luther King, Jr. called us to see? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Lappe goes on to point out that serving is about more than the “helper’s high” that 95 percent of volunteers reported feeling in a recent study, as a result of helping others. Creating King’s “network of mutuality” leads to developing a “liberation of talents,” that, once relieved from oppression, can bolster our society.

So, instead of “serving” others, which continues the oppression of the receivers’ skills, Lappe argues that we should be sure that a partnership exists that uses the talents of all stakeholders — group problem-solving instead of service.

Lappe cites Obama in this post, given his example as a community organizer with an affiliate of Gamaleil, a large Chicago-based advocacy network, supporting activist leaders of low-income communities. What’s intriguing to me is that I saw Obama’s experience with this approach come into play when he was in Erie last April.

A gentleman asked Obama a question in the town hall portion of the event in which he laid out the problems he was having in his life and essentially asked, “What are you going to do for me?” Instead of providing a litany of policy prescriptions, Obama first asserted that the appropriate first question was, “What are you going to do for yourself,” and then he went on to speak about responsibility, much like he did in his inaugural address.

In a world with rapidly growing technology that breeds an efficiency-first approach, Lappe’s argument and Obama’s philosophy reminds us that even though fixing another’s problem might make us feel good, it doesn’t do anything long-term for society. We should be doing all that we can to collaborate, pool resources, skills, and gifts, and tackle our challenges together.

Advertisements