Community Empowerment Fund creates a community for homeless and at risk people in North Carolina

Investing in people and their potential
Back of CEF shirt’s reads the organization’s core principle

For most college graduates, post-graduation plans include entering a graduate program or starting at an entry level job. For Maggie West, however, whom graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010, her post-graduate plans involved something much bigger: working with other students to expand upon a college organization and make a lasting impact in her community. Now, eight years later, West is one of three co-directors of  the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF), a nonprofit organization in Chapel Hill and Durham with one simple goal: investing in people and their potential.

From a small college organization to a growing non profit

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Guiding principles of CEF

CEF officially launched in the summer of 2009 as a college program at the UNC. West helped start CEF with six other students by building off of the UNC Campus Y committee HOPE, another student organization. HOPE gave students the opportunity to do community-based work such as creative writing workshops and community dinners to build relationships between UNC students and those in shelters.

“Through that relationship building work, we got to know some of the gaps that were in the system in terms of supporting people,” West said, “in not just moving out of homelessness but staying out of homelessness.”

Through working with HOPE, several students found that many of the people in these shelters only lacked small amounts of money to get on a path toward self-sufficiency. Though many social service organizations can offer grants that can cover these expenses, most do not consider the underlying causes of cyclical and systemic poverty and inequality. This sparked these students to create CEF, which hoped to combine the need for financial aid with the importance of building relationships.

HOPE initially partnered with another Campus Y committee, the Carolina Microfinance Initiative (CMI), to help with their financial support efforts. A few months later, the UNC Law School Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity joined the partnership to give the foundation an institutional backing and academic experience. These three partners helped make CEF’s launch in 2009 possible.

The foundation initially began as a micro-loan program, giving capital to those in need. After their pilot the students and partnering organizations switched the primary focus to building community and teaching about savings, but their foundation has always been in relationships.

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“Declaration of Financial Independence” serves as an inspiration to members and explains why it is important to be financially secure.

“We launched initially as a micro-loan program, and were giving out loans up to $300 for people looking to expand their opportunities through education or employment or housing,” said Jon Young, a founder and now co-director of the foundation. “Those were loans that we gave out to people that we really already knew in a lot of ways from the different writing groups, through HOPE, through the Talking Sidewalks, through community dinners. Things grew from there. Everything has always been fundamentally relationship based.”

After seeing much success and growth over its first two years as a college program, CEF officially became a nonprofit in June 2011. Around the same time, they also opened another office in Durham, expanding their reach to Orange and Durham Counties.

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 6.07.17 AM.pngToday, CEF works with people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless by offering three main services: relationship-based support, safe savings accounts and financial coaching. Through the help of student volunteers called Advocates, primarily coming from UNC and Duke, CEF helps people find jobs and housing, connect to community resources and build savings. CEF also provides matches savings accounts where a member can make a savings goal and once they reach that goal the organization will match it at 10 percent. 

Impacting the community

When asked to share what he feels the most impactful part of CEF is, Young thought back to a quote from a student advocate, Mary Katherine, that will be a part of the 2016 annual report.

“No matter what challenges or barriers you face no matter if you are an advocate or a member you are supported and valued here,” Mary Katherine said. “That is what makes CEF so special. No matter who you are or where you are from CEF is a safe place to find love and support.”

In the 2015 annual report, CEF had 760 members actively engaged in its programming, compared to just 14 when the foundation started in 2009. In 2015, 155 jobs were gained, 114 homes were secured and $193,881 were saved by its members.

Young believes that the foundation’s success lies with its ability to create a safe space for people who don’t often feel secure.

“A lot of the people that we work with aren’t really used to a safe space,” Young said. “They’re used to spaces that are invasive, rude, and traumatizing and dehumanizing, and they’re used to sort of operating in a survival mode where the system forces them to be selfish in a way in order to survive. I believe that what happened at CEF is that members find a place where they don’t have to be selfish, that actually through sharing themselves and their voice and their experience, they find that they can make a meaningful impact with the advocates they are working with.”

On its website, CEF reflects its core value of building a community by sharing stories of some of its members, showing many examples of the impactful work the organization accomplishes. One post shares poems written by Julius “Foot” Alston, who was able to purchase a home with his brother, Mike, with the help of CEF. Alston’s poems tell the story of how he and his brother managed to come out of homelessness. These poems help share community stories, which as Young and West both mentioned, is what CEF is truly all about.

“Work that we do isn’t just about the individual,” Young said, “but through these combined stories, we are able to connect people to larger systemic narratives that are very very real and very constantly afflicting the members that we work with.”

Graduation from the program

One of the biggest community events they hold is the annual graduation ceremony for CEF members.

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IMG_8187.PNGOn Saturday April 29, CEF held a Spring graduation ceremony for their members and advocates. Members and advocates were served lunch and then invited to attend a graduation ceremony. During the ceremony, members got awarded for both reaching their savings goals and completing the Opportunity Classes in either the Chapel Hill or Durham offices. The advocates also were recognized during the ceremony and given a t-shirt and a piggy bank as a thank you for helping CEF during their time at college. The event concluded with a performance by the CEF Advocacy Choir. 

Goals for the future

CEF has seen incredible growth over the past three years. Their most recent accomplishment just occurred recently when West, Young and Janet Xiao, the third co-director, presented at TEDxUNC on April 2, 2017.

But, even with this success and recognition, the co-directors still have their sights set high for the future.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 8.40.02 PMIn the 2015 annual report, CEF outlined their three-year strategic plan for 2016-2018. The plan listed five main goals to be completed in the next three years: to fully integrate financial services with partners providing emergency shelter, transitional housing and housing support, to improve coordination of member services through advocates to better assist the growing base of members in achieving goals, to advance CEF’s member’s achievement of employment and career goals, to promote sustained transition into housing and to invest in organizational sustainability, increased organizational effectiveness and deepened commitment to mission. These goals were set after taking feedback from a number of stakeholders and community partners.

In addition to this, West hopes to expand their impact in the counties they’re in now.  

“Goals for us right now are to deepen impact in the geographies of where we are now,” West said. “We are not trying to expand to other counties necessarily, we’re really just trying to grow the number of members we are serving in Orange and Durham counties, and grow the depth of the services we are providing in those members.”

To accomplish this goal in the Orange County area, West hopes to build upon the integrated service delivery model, where other nonprofits can join with CEF to offer their services onsite as well, such as mental health clinics, veteran services, legal services and re-housing services. This will allow a more streamlined path for members to get the services they need.

In Durham county, the goals are flipped — West hopes to integrate CEF’s financial capability services directly with shelters, rehousing programs and workforce development providers to make their financial services and saving programs work well in the context of these other organizations. This could be accomplished by creating stronger partnerships with organizations and services in the community.

Regardless of where the organization will go in the future, the focus will always remain the same: investing in people and their potential.

While it is an important and primary goal of the organization to financially support members and help them transition out of homelessness, West believes that CEF’s biggest impact has been its ability to create a community for members, unlike other social service providers like it.

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Poem written by a member, posted on CEF’s Instagram.

“When a member comes to CEF they’re joining a community,” West said. “They’re becoming a member, they automatically are joining something. Aside from the more tangible jobs and homes and savings, I think we are just consistently grounded by the fact that I think the deepest community impact we have is by fostering that community and the long-term relationships that all make it up.”

Though members will remember the home they bought or the job the got, the sense of self-worth and dignity that comes from joining CEF is what West believes they truly remember.

“Those are the things that I think make it have a deeper impact, is a lot of the sense of self-worth and dignity, are the much deeper places that I think we make an impact, and that persist much longer across time than the day-to-day wins.”

Social skills may set human workers apart from artificial intelligence

by Olivia Zayas Ryan

With the emergence of artificial intelligence, many people worry about the future of the job market. 

A study conducted in 2016 by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center that canvassed more than 1,400 technologists, futurists and scholars found that “most experts expect education and jobs-training ecosystems will shift in the next decade to exploit new virtual reality tools and artificial intelligence.” The recently released report also stated that many experts expect also fear what artificial intelligence means for capitalism.

More than 1,400 respondents were asked: “In the next ten years, do you think we will see new-piktochart_22371995_1e66f0cb75aa876a9f6ef92b064e231191726c5fthe emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future?”

70 percent responded, “yes,” they believe that new approaches will emerge and will prove to be successful. 30 percent said “no,” there will not be successful training programs in the future, and most expect that adaptation in teaching environments will not sufficiently prepare workers for the future.

In general, five themes were found in an analysis of the responses: a new training
ecosystem will evolve, students must be able to hone 21st-century skills, new credentialing systems will emerge as self-directing learning expands, training systems may not meet 21st-century needs within 10 years and artificial intelligence may fundamentally change the workplace. 

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Five general themes found in the report. Image retrieved from Imagining the Internet Center’s Twitter account. 

Janna Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center and the co-author of the report, said that students must cultivate skills that set them apart from artificial intelligence.

“Everybody needs to be a Jack of all trades, a Jill of all trades,” Anderson said. “You need to understand a wide variety of things and be curious and excited about lifelong learning.”

Anderson also said that while you need to work beyond technology, you also need to work with it.  

“You need to be willing to take the digital tools that we have at our disposal, the artificial intelligence that you have in your hands or carry in your pocket, and tap into the world’s knowledge and expand yourself.” Anderson said. “It’s not enough to be able to count on Siri or Alexa to answer things for you, you need to deepen your critical thinking skills, understand how to analyze information, and judge its veracity and be able to synthesize information in such a way that you can add value to your organization and also partner with that great intelligence as it keeps developing into the future.”

Respondents in the study predicted many different skills, capabilities and attributes to benew-piktochart_22372821_42303948a5e44502c2089db25a6157839bf9219b of future valuable. Some of the most common ones mentioned were: adaptability, resilience, empathy, compassion, judgement and discernment, deliberation, conflict resolution, and the capacity to motivate, mobilize and innovate.

Amber McCraw, assistant director of career services for the school of communications, said that she encourages her students to work on their soft skills to compete with artificial intelligence.
“A robot or a machine is not going to be able to build relationships with people or hold

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Amber McCraw

effective conversations with people, request information from people,” McCraw said. “Things like that that are sometimes kind of natural things or things that need to be learned, pieces of your personality … I think that soft skills are the skills that students need to really focus on. You’re going to still need the technical skills or the software skills or things like that, but those are things that computers can do or can be trained to do in the future.”

Many Elon students also feel that their personal skills set them apart from artificial intelligence, saying that creativity, empathy and the ability to analyze are skills that robots do not have.

Junior Lindsey Clemmer, a student majoring in Cinema and Television Arts, believes that her creative outlook makes her more qualified to edit and produce videos than a robot.

I think there is a difference between being technical and being aesthetically pleasing, and I think giving a human touch to things is something that robots will never be able to do because humans know what other humans want to see,” Clemmer said. “I feel like you can’t really program a lot of that into a machine.”

Junior Logan Smith, though majoring in accounting, a very different field than Clemmer, felt similarly.

“I feel like a robot is capable of doing all the accounting things that a human can do, but I feel like something that sets a human apart from a robot is humans can actually analyze the data that you’re working with, whereas robots can’t,” Smith said. “At least, probably not in the near future, maybe someday they will be able to, but as of right now humans are the only ones who can interpret the data and actually analyze the data and provide a business with the solution to a problem.”

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Scott Hildebrand

Though many respondents expressed a fear of self-directed learning nullifying the need for a college education, these students believe their skills they have learned at Elon still set them apart from robots or those who have learned technical skills through other forms of technology. Scott Hildebrand, assistant director of teaching and learning technologies at Elon, works specifically with teaching technology, but agrees and still believes that there is great value in in-person, classroom learning.

I still think it’s the sharing of experiences,” Hildebrand said. “I don’t think artificial intelligence, like computers, can go through and have those experiences, those life experiences that can be translated into a teaching and learning moment in the classroom. So yes, there’s lots of resources out there, but can you contextually connect those resources with the experiences that faculty members bring to the classroom.”

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Elon Poll finds North Carolina voters do not approve of Trump’s first 100 days

Saturday marks the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency. Throughout hisgetimage.png campaign trail, Trump made many promises about what he would get done within this 100 day time period. But, as this 100-day mark approaches, it is clear he has not completed many of his campaign promises. 

The most recent Elon University Poll found that 51 percent of North Carolina voters polled disapprove of how Trump is handling the job of president, with only 42 percent saying they approve.

The White House recently released a memo outlining Trump’s accomplishments during his first 100 days. This list does not include many of the points he promised throughout his campaign.

Trump first announced his plan for his first 100 days before the election  on October 23, 2016 in Gettysburg, Penn. By his 75th day in office, Trump had not accomplished any of these legislative goals. Since then, he has signed a number of executive orders and memoranda.
During his campaign, he criticized former President Barack Obama for his use of executive orders. But, most of Trump’s accomplishments — about 62 percent of the 37 points listed in the White House memo — have been through executive order or memorandum. 

In his first 100 days, Trump has signed 25 executive orders, compared to 19 by former president Barack Obama, 11 by former president George Bush and 13 by former president Bill Clinton in the same time period.

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Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies and director of Elon University Poll

His use of executive orders hasn’t helped his approval either. According to Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies and director of the Elon University Poll, most presidents see high levels of support from both previous supporters and opponents during their first 100 days. But, Trump’s presidency is different.

“[Trump’s] level of support in his first 100 days, both for himself personally and for his key policies, is as low as we’ve seen in the history of opinion polling,” Husser said. “However, his core supporters remain very loyal.”

Husser also gave some potential reasoning behind this disproval.

“Trump’s difficulty in presidential approval likely comes from two sources: his rhetorical and policy decisions, which he has control over,” Husser said, “and a divisive, polarized and dysfunctional political environment that makes it hard for any incoming president to function.”

Many Elon students also disapprove of Trump’s actions thus far in his presidency. Sophomore Mollie Richter did not vote for Trump and feels he hasn’t fulfilled the promises he made to those who did.

“I think for the people who voted for him he is not doing very well because he’s made a lot of promises and said he was going to do a lot of things that he hasn’t really done…” Richter said, “…as someone who didn’t vote for him, I honestly don’t care how he’s doing, but I think people who did vote for him, they should be concerned because he obviously isn’t making strides in the things that he wants to.”

Elon students also disapprove of Trump’s use of Twitter. The Elon Poll found that 73 getimage-2percent of voters find Trump’s use of Twitter to be inappropriate, with only 18 percent saying it is appropriate.

“In his twitter, he’s yelling at people and making accusations with no evidence,” Richter said. “I don’t trust my country in someone like that.”

Senior Darius Moore also disapproves of Trump’s presidency and use of Twitter and fears his impulsivity could harm the American people.

“Inside Dakota” shows the potential affects of the Dakota Access Pipeline through art

As an Elon University student majoring in Environmental and Ecological Science with a creative spirit at heart, sophomore Sarah Midolo was excited to take the course ART 339: Eco Art as a requirement for her major.

“I’ve never taken an art class at Elon,” Midolo said. “I really wanted to do that and of course I’m very passionate about the environment and the inner workings of trying to preserve our planet and our people so I thought it was a really great way to combine my creative points and my major passions.”

IMG_7403.JPGThe course, taught this semester by Samantha DiRosa, associate professor of art and environmental studies, is meant to be cross disciplinary. It combines elements of environmental theories and ethics with art and creative expression. For Midolo, the course has given her an outlet for creative protest.

“So the whole purpose of Eco art is kind of to bring awareness to these bigger issues through like creative and exploratory processes,” Midolo said. “It’s combining creative expression with protest in a way, so my group decided to do an informative simulation based on our frustrations surrounding the political, social, economic and environmental facets of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”IMG_7407.JPG

The assignment was to create an art installation that reflects current issues in the environmental and ecological sciences. Midolo, along with senior David May, and sophomore Melanie Intriago, created “Inside Dakota,” an interactive game and simulation with the purpose of addressing the complexities of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The exhibit lives in the Arts West “Living Studio” — a small greenhouse across the street from Arts West. It is the first project from the class to be displayed in a four-week long series. The following weeks will showcase the creative and immersive art installations on current environmental problems in the Elon community and nation as a whole created by the other students in the course.

IMG_7400When viewers enter the greenhouse, they are met with more than a dozen pieces of
hanging black tear drops, all suspended by red, yellow, green or blue yarn, that have different scenarios on them. The black shoe footprints, bare footprints and paw prints on the floor of the exhibit lead the viewers through the simulation.

Directions for how to play the game are displayed next to the entrance to the Living Studio. Participants are invited to spin a color wheel and will go through the simulation acting as one of four characters based on the color they get — red being the indigenous people, yellow being “the man,” green being the wildlife and blue being the average United States citizen.

The participants then walk through the simulation, reading the cards that correspond to the role they are playing. The cards serve as a timeline an examine what could happen to these different roles if the Dakota Access Pipeline is constructed and if it bursts. The students did extensive research, including current events and statistical facts, to create these different scenarios.

After completing the simulation, the students hope the participants find that the people are more informed about the different stakeholders involved in this process and how some groups may benefit more than others. For Midolo, her biggest hope is that people become more aware about the larger implications of this pipeline.

“A lot of promises were made regarding this pipeline and a lot of thins were said that aren’t true,” Midolo said, “and the media easily persuades a lot of people and it’s hard for people to find truth in it. So, we used all scientific and government-based websites for statistical purposes and accuracy and came up with something that hopefully just opens people’s eyes a little bit more and prompts them to want to get more involved with issues like this.”

Giving back or giving in?: Elon students complete court mandated community service hours

By Olivia Zayas Ryan

Ashley Smith* wakes up to the blaring sound of her alarm at 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. She slowly rises out of bed, gets dressed and makes her way to Elon University’s Physical Plant Offices. She will spend the next five hours following her supervisor — delivering custodial supplies, checking fire alarms, scraping gum off the sidewalk — whatever her assignment is for the day. She waits for her shift to end and heads to class.

One year ago, Smith received a citation for consuming alcohol under the age of 21. Because she had no previous charges, the Alamance County District Attorney allowed her to enter the First Offender’s Program where she was required to pay $450 worth of fines, write a five page essay on the effects of underage drinking, remain on probation for 12 months and complete 24 hours of court mandated community service. Her charges remain pending on her record for one year and will be dismissed after she has completed the program.

After meeting with her probation officer, Smith was assigned to complete her restitution hours at the Physical Plant. Smith completed her hours within three weeks, and though she actually enjoyed working at the Physical Plant, she didn’t feel like this punishment was relevant to her crime, nor did she feel as though it really changed her life in any way.

“My crime was having two beers and getting a sober driver, I wasn’t harming the community in any way,” Smith said. “I would understand if I was a vandal and they were having me clean up the school, like that makes perfect sense, but I didn’t harm anyone and I couldn’t have harmed anyone that night so I don’t think I was repaying the community in any way. I just feel like it was a punishment to try and scare me from getting caught.”

Smith is not alone in her perspective on court mandated community service, which then begs the question of who exactly this sanction is benefiting: the offenders or the community?

Why use community service?

Community service is seen to have many benefits as a sanction. According to the Federal Corrections and Supervision Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, community service gives offenders a sanction that is less restrictive on their rights than prison, allows them to still work and meet family commitments, gives them a chance to give back to their community or help others and gives them an opportunity for gain transferable skills, work experience and connections.class 1991

On the other side, it gives the community free labor, access to services that may not have been available due to lack of funding and saved taxpayer dollars that would have gone to prisons. It is often seen as a “win-win” sanction because it is mutually beneficial to both the offender and the community, as well as being low-cost and humane.

 

Elon’s Office of Student Conduct offers community service hours as a sanction for similar reasons. Randall Williams, director of student conduct, said that the university uses restitution hours as a sanction for many honor code violations on campus.

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Randall Williams

“The intention for our process is to be educational and through that community service or that restitution hours as we call it, we feel that [students] are getting that outside education or the opportunity to reflect on their behavior as it pertains to the incident,” Williams said. “It also gives them the chance to sometimes repair some of the harm that’s done in the community depending on the incident, and also then building their own connections outside of the institution to grow their network through the restitution hours or community service.”

The number of hours required varies depending on the severity of the incident.

When students are required to complete community service hours, they are able to choose from a list given to them by the Office of Student Conduct of organizations or places to complete them. These vary from Elon-specific organizations such as Safe Rides to larger organizations such as the Special Olympics.

Many other universities use a similar system to Elon.

In the Alamance County Court systems, community service is used for a number of crimes, but is most often seen as a sanction for shoplifting, driving while impaired or as a part of the First Offenders Program.

Judge Kathryn Overby of the Alamance County Courts explained why the courts use community service as a form of punishment.

“I think the hope is that, it’s a punishment, I mean there’s no doubt it’s a punishment, so it’s not something that we say ‘Oh hopefully they enjoy it or get something out of it,’ but it’s also something to motivate them not to come back to court,” Overby said. “As far as fines, granted, today is a whole lot better than five years ago, paying a fine, sometimes that’s really easy. For some people it’s really hard and difficult, so we require them to do community service and not pay the fee that goes along with it because we’d rather get them out in the community, doing something, giving back to the community, rather than just paying a fine.”

In contrast to how Elon uses community service, the Alamance County Courts are focused less on the personal reflection aspect of the service hours.

Who benefits: those charged or the community they’re serving

Because court mandated community service hours are so common, many organizations rely on the free labor of these offenders to run efficiently. This is seen both in the smaller Elon community and nationally.

Gregory Marshall, first shift manager for the custodial department of the Physical Plant, said that the students completing community service are very helpful to the department.

“Now you know we are understaffed,” Marshall said, “so we don’t have the extra hands for stuff like this, so it really helps us, it really helps us.”

Often, the students who are assigned to work at the Physical Plant help with picking up trash at Elon’s football or baseball stadiums, scraping gum from the sidewalks or helping custodians with physical labor.

Senior Catherine Brown* also had to complete court mandated community service hours 25after she received a ticket for reckless speeding. She was given 24 hours of community service and, unlike Smith, as able to choose the organization she worked for. She completed her hours at Allied Churches and Campus Kitchen at Elon.

Brown didn’t feel very connected to the community through her service, but she did feel like her work benefitted the organization.

“I think [my hours] were [of value], especially because it allowed the other people in the office to do more important things, like contact more important contacts, do meetings, while I stayed behind and addressed the envelopes and sent out fliers, so in that way I do think it was beneficial.”

At Elon in particular, organizations such as Safe Rides rely heavily on students completing mandated hours. Safe Rides is a student-run organization that offers free, sober rides for Elon students on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. For students who are required to complete service hours after an underage drinking charge, volunteering with Safe Rides could offer a valuable perspective.

“One of the more popular [service opportunities] that students use is Safe Rides,” Williams said. “and what they come and often talk about is the other students who happen to get on the van for Safe Rides who are often intoxicated or on their way to being intoxicated, they say ‘Man, you know this student was me, and I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that, so I’m going to adjust my behavior because I see how this person is acting while I’ve been in a different capacity.’ So it’s kind of like you’ve been on the different foot.”

John Stevens, an Elon sophomore whom was given a similar citation and punishment toGoodwill_Industries_Logo.svg Smith, was required to work with Goodwill Industries in Burlington, North Carolina. While he was completing his restitution hours at Goodwill, there were often many other volunteers working as well, whether they be voluntary or mandated. But, at a small store with such a large number of people working, Stevens felt his hours were unnecessary.

“I felt pretty useless to be honest,” Stevens said. “Anything I did could have been by them. Half of the time I just walked around pretending like I was doing stuff because there genuinely wasn’t anything to do but I needed hours.”

In a privileged community, are students gaining skills they need?

One of the biggest reasons why courts use community service as a sanction for crimes is to give the offender and opportunity to learn a valuable skill. But, at a school like Elon where students are receiving a high level of education and many come from privileged backgrounds, it is unclear whether or not these students are truly gaining skills they need.

“I think it would be very different if I wasn’t a college student,” Smith said, “not that I should be treated any differently than anyone else because I can afford to go to college and because I’m studying to get a degree, but I feel like it is very different for these like rich privileged kids to go do 24 hours of community service and then go back to being a rich college student, you know? As opposed to students who like get in trouble and then maybe need a skill, like maybe it would be more useful for them.”

Though Smith and Brown were completing very different tasks, both students felt that the didn’t gain any new skills through their experiences.

“I would definitely say that service benefits those with less privileged backgrounds than myself,” Brown said. “I was doing secretarial work, which I’ve done before just like in internships and stuff like that. If it was someone else who was doing it I think it would’ve been beneficial just to know like file organization and things like that, but yeah it didn’t really personally give anything to me that I didn’t already have.”

‘I feel bad saying it’s a punishment because it still is a very good thing’

While many students who were required to complete community service hours didn’t feel the punishment was relevant to their crime, they are unsure what a better option would be.

For Brown — who received her speeding ticket on an interstate in Virginia — serving the Alamance County community didn’t feel applicable to the crime she committed, considering no one in the Alamance County community would have been affected by it. Still, the punishment has made her more careful when driving, but she finds it difficult to say that it has stopped or will stop her from committing other crimes.

“I feel bad saying it’s a punishment because it still is a very good thing, I feel weird connotating it with like jail time or a fine because it’s different,” Brown said, “but I think it is a worthwhile thing to do in place of those types of things. It’s a weird question because it’s not like ‘Oh I don’t want to [commit a crime] because I really don’t want to help the community,’ so I guess in that way, no, it’s not preventing me from committing another crime.”

This is one of the biggest critiques of court mandated community service hours, as many believe that it turns the idea of volunteering into involuntary work, and in turn can make it seem less like a service to the community and more like a legal obligation.

Stevens said that he wouldn’t complete community service hours at Goodwill again because he felt his time there was pointless. He said that the prospect of being punished has made him more careful in general about how he consumes alcohol and where, but it hasn’t stopped him from doing it.

Stevens also said that he spent much of his time at Goodwill reflecting on the regulation of and use of punishments for non-violent crimes.

“The only thing I reflected on was the pointlessness of punishments for non-violent crime and how I loved libertarianism,” Stevens said. “I’m not blaming the system for doing its job or anyone who worked within it, but I do genuinely feel that overregulation of non-violent crime is a waste of both the government’s and citizen’s resources and time.”

But, according to Williams, community service is often the best option.

“We could fine a student and put them on disciplinary probation and send them on their way, but how does that really help the student?” Williams said. “Especially for our students that are able to afford some of the fines that we have, and can say, ‘OK well here’s $150 for this time, and here’s another $150 for the next time I’m going to do this because money is not an issue for me.’”

Williams said that, in addition to engaging with the community, community service is often used as a sanction to deter people from just paying a fine. While restitution hours allow students a time to reflect, paying a fine doesn’t offer the same opportunity.  

“I think the First Offenders Program is very successful, especially with college students,” Overby said. “I think a lot of college students go to college and are away from their parents for the first time and are experimenting with things and don’t always realize the consequences out there. So this gives the opportunity to kinda go, ‘Wait a second, I have a future and I’m going to go and do this or do that and I don’t need this n my record.'”

In many ways, it’s the act of being caught that deters students from committing further crimes — not the burden of community service.

Whether giving back or giving in, the community still benefits
Though the students themselves may not feel the direct effects of their service, there are some clear benefits of this procedure — though these benefits may vary greatly among service placements. 

*Students’s names were changed to protect anonymity.