Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Helping Industry

The Boston Globe highlighted the careers of three community organizers in this story:
One is an ex-con who is Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner’s Director of Constituent Services. His job sounds reasonable enough, despite the nutcase politics of his boss—but he seems more like a city employee than a community organizer.

Another example is the Phillips Exeter & Wesleyan graduate who “leads a program that uses hip-hop to teach about sustainability.” No comment.

The lead story is more disturbing:
Penn Loh was a star MIT electrical engineering student from the Pennsylvania suburbs on "a model minority track," he says, when he heard the call of community service.

A talented Chinese-American student pursuing a lucrative career in a scientific profession, Loh had just begun an internship at Draper Laboratory, which works on defense projects. The position was the outcome of winning a spot in a competitive electrical engineering program that would allow him to get a bachelor's and master's degree in five years. That same semester he took a class on intellectuals and social responsibility. The more Loh heard in that class, the more his job at Draper Labs made him uncomfortable.

"I was questioning the value of the work I was doing," says Loh, 40.

Loh quit the internship and finished his years as an electrical engineering student participating in anti-apartheid rallies and other social justice issues. He began working at Alternatives for Community & Environment in 1996. Until he left at the end of February, he had been the organization's executive director for the past nine years. Through ACE, Loh has advocated for better, more affordable subway service. ACE also looks for opportunities to redevelop abandoned buildings in a green and sustainable manner that will produce jobs and ownership opportunities.

Perhaps Mr. Loh finds satisfaction in his current employment. It would be presumptuous to tell him he should have stuck with the internship at Draper.

But in general, it seems like a bad idea to convince “star MIT electrical engineers” that they are of more value to society by becoming “advocates” for things like “affordable subway service.” This is the paradigm advanced by Michelle Obama, when she told college students “to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry”:

Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that.

Teachers and nurses, to be sure. But how many hip-hop sustainability educators do we as a society need?