Privilege and Advocacy: Who is Your Service Really Serving?


Courtesy of NOVAdance

NOVAdance committee members are pictured at the end of this year’s dance marathon.

Lindsay Gallagher, Staff Writer

The two largest service organizations at Villanova are NOVAdance and Special Olympics. Both are amazing groups and events that make a massive impact on the groups they serve, and I’ve participated in both over my past four years. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, what it was about these organizations that made them take off the way they have in our community compared to other service organizations with smaller membership like Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week or Habitat for Humanity.

The difference between NOVAdance and Special Olympics and the other service organizations on our campus may lie in the nature of the causes they support. Cancer and disability can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Some students at Villanova may feel more comfortable volunteering for Special Olympics and NOVAdance because those organizations do not require them to confront their own race and socioeconomic privilege.

The Special Olympics’ DEI subcommittee was established only two years ago. A current member of SpO’s committee explained what they were concerned about in the organization.

“Something leadership is really working towards is making the organization more diverse,” they said, as it is currently overwhelmingly white.

  A former member of Special Olympics’ DEI subcommittee told me that they led an allyship workshop on Zoom during their full committee retreat last year.

“Out of 96 committee members, only one person spoke the entire time – just to say thank you at the end,” the member said.

Not a single member participated in the discussion.

  NOVAdance does not have any DEI-related executive board positions, despite the heightened challenges that people of color face while seeking cancer treatment. A 2021 study published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found that Black children consistently experience the worst overall survival rates across pediatric cancer diagnoses. Census data shows that in the United States, 28% of Black households have medical debt, compared to 17% of white households.

An example of how a DEI subcommittee could be helpful for NOVAdance would be in discussions about how to be aware and inclusive of people of differing socioeconomic statuses. A Villanova student who has never wondered where their next meal would come from could cause real harm with their language and attitude towards families who are relying on NOVAdance’s support to pay their bills if not properly trained and educated.

Philanthropy that forces one to question their place in the world and make changes to their life accordingly is more potent than philanthropy that does not. Service in the spirit of true selflessness would include opening people’s minds to understand their privilege – unearned advantages that benefit people over others because of embedded practices and policies in society – and taking action to lift up the disadvantaged.

There are some great organizations at Villanova that currently push their members to lean into the discomfort of admitting and understanding one’s privilege. Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (HHAW) began at Villanova in 1975 and has since spread to 700 other colleges, high schools and communities. One would think that an event with such a storied history, dedicated to such a pressing worldwide issue and having created a ripple effect across the country would be one of the most popular clubs on campus.

However, it is much smaller. HHAW has approximately 30 active members compared to NOVAdance and Special Olympics’ thousands. The completely student-led group works all year to plan the November event, which features a Solidarity Sleep-Out, meal swipe drive, keynote speaker, prayer vigil and more. HHAW’s participants face the realities of poverty head-on by directly engaging with people that are harmed by the current system that benefits students like those at Villanova who attend a top-tier, expensive institution while simultaneously depriving millions of people of food and shelter in a society that has more than enough to go around.

Habitat for Humanity is another organization that challenges its members’ worldviews, as Emma Noey, the club’s Vice President of Communications, explained.

“Habitat offers a unique experience for students at Villanova to leave the comfort of campus and travel to places in surrounding impoverished areas,” Noey said. “These interactions force us to recognize the privilege we have of being able to live and go to a high-quality school.”

By leaving the “Villanova bubble” and learning about discriminatory housing practices and the harm that they cause to marginalized people, members can question the aspects of the current systems that allow inequality to persist generation to generation.

NOVAdance has not spoken out about how financial hardship for childhood cancer patients could be mostly, if not completely, eliminated with government subsidized healthcare. Special Olympics hasn’t addressed how much more difficult it is for low-income athletes to get involved, given the financial, time and travel requirements to practice for and compete in events – and the result being a disproportionately white organization.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to shame any school club for not being able to do everything all the time, but rather, that political advocacy is just as important as interpersonal service. Special Olympics and NOVAdance are both powerful cultural forces on this campus, and they have the potential to encourage the Villanova student body to be a stronger force for good.

If we don’t challenge our privilege by working to eradicate systemic inequalities, it will keep us and our philanthropic beneficiaries in the same place. If we don’t work to change the systems that prevent others from having lives free of preventable suffering, we will be doing the same service over and over again, forever.

Recognizing privilege compels one to work to eradicate it, not perpetuate the system in which they are the privileged. For those who truly want to alleviate suffering for others, the next step is to make advocacy a part of their volunteer work.

Habitat for Humanity “advocates for policies and changes that can eliminate barriers to give everyone a decent place to live,” like down payment assistance programs, zoning reform and tenant protections. HHAW member Daryl Jucar shed more light on the club’s emphasis on advocacy.

“Several of our members attended the Ignatian Teach-In in Washington D.C., where they attended a political rally and met with members of Congress on Capitol Hill,” Jucar said.

NOVAdance and Special Olympics could add political advocacy subcommittees to their leadership structure. They could hold meetings with local politicians to discuss medical debt relief and expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

During election seasons, the clubs can share information about each candidate’s positions and voting records on legislation that helps cancer patients and disabled people and encourage its members to vote. It would be hypocritical to volunteer with people then turn around and vote for a politician who would enact policies that harm them.

  We, as Villanova students and as stewards of the next generation, should encourage more political engagement from organizations like Special Olympics and NOVAdance and try serving causes that might initially make us uneasy. If you’re only involved in organizations that don’t require you to question how your own privilege directly harms the people you are serving, you are not maximizing your impact.

It’s time to lean into discomfort – if our volunteer organizations are not taking action to address the root causes of the struggles we are trying to alleviate, then who are we really serving?