In contemporary society, we understand “charity” as transient and transactional. However, the term was initially used to refer to the pure, radiant love one felt towards one’s community. I first became acquainted with the term charity at the beginning of high school, but wouldn’t come to fully appreciate and understand the term as a metaphor for community until I began to volunteer for the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO) during my freshman year of college. I came to realize that oftentimes, the most powerful acts of charity can only be detected through careful observation of the community itself. The following piece reflects on the state of charity corrupted by capitalism, and offers up hope in the minute happenings of TYO rehearsals.
“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13 (KJV)
At the beginning of my high school career, I memorized and recited the King James Version of 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 for my English class. It was an infamous rite of passage all freshmen had to experience, despite the fact that our school was not a religiously-affiliated institution. After our individual initiations, we recited the text every year during one of our community assemblies, a cult-like ritual in which freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors chanted words from the bible together in unison.
The recitation of 1 Corinthians 13 is a tradition at my high school that dates back to the early 1900’s, when the scripture was initially selected as the school chapter due to its reverence for “charity.” As my ninth-grade English teacher explained to us, the Christians regarded charity as the purest and most unadulterated form of “brotherly love,” exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
I suppose the assumption was that memorizing the text would force us, at fourteen years old, to meditate on the meaning of charity and disseminate the seeds of our newfound enlightenment in our communities both on and off campus. But through my volunteer experience as a violin coach and private teacher for the Trenton Youth Orchestra, I’ve come to realize that the selfless love of charity cannot be forced upon someone, because intellectual processing and internal processing, while not mutually exclusive, are not the same. While someone may recognize the moral significance of charity in our society and take action, they may not necessarily act out of unconditional love for their community.
Moreover, the meaning of charity itself has evolved since Christians first coined the term. The Oxford dictionary defines charity as “an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need” (nonprofits). The second most common usage of the term indicates “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need” (an act of charity). I consider volunteer work an act of charity as well because it implies the giving of time, and time is just another form of currency.
As our contemporary definitions suggest, charity itself has become commodified and one-sided. It indicates the “sacrificial” redistribution of resources among people and countries of varying socioeconomic statuses, and in many instances, has come to serve as an antidote to the moral guilt of the middle and upper classes of America.
Our society has developed a system of rewarding acts of charity to incentivize people and thereby reinstate charity within the system of capitalism. The commodification of charity most clearly manifests in the college admissions process, which often privileges students with relevant community service experience. As such, students have a personal incentive to participate in service work. Charity becomes a transmutable good; quite literally, a box we check off on an application to signal our capacity for thoughtfulness and kindness. Yet as Princeton professor Peter Singer emphasizes in his book on effective altruism, our charity work can have a tremendous impact on improving our communities locally, domestically, and internationally. At what point does it become morally problematic for benefactors to benefit from their efforts, if they are making a positive impact?
It is the tension between community and society that amounts to the corruption of charity under capitalism. The German sociologist and philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies describes the difference between the two as such: the bonds of community manifest as the unity of human wills, whereas the bonds of society are transient and transactional, only lasting as long as the two (or more) parties have something to gain from the relationship. Community fosters collaboration, while society thrives on competition.
The Canadian theologian and philosopher Jean Vanier notes that healthy communities should prioritize people over all the other elements of the community, including the self, suggesting that it is the people that matter rather than the ideology of the community as an abstract entity. He suggests that community is charity, and that in our quest for individual success, we have lost sight of the true meaning and spirit of community -- and consequently, charity as well.
Vanier also criticizes the transient nature of our charity, asserting that charity (love) is permanent. Many of us perceive charity as a side gig or a weekend affair, much like Sunday church. We see our charity as impacting "their community" and not ours, falsely perceiving charity as an act of pity when really it should be an act of love. In our desire to do good, we impose our will onto others, without properly attempting to establish long-lasting connections.
This lack of long-term commitment is often revealed in the outreach endeavors and projects heralded by professional orchestras. As students now have fewer opportunities to experience music due to budget cuts in public schools, professional orchestras across the country have established music education and outreach programs or partnerships with local youth orchestras. However, as musicians and administrators from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) discussed in a recent webinar on anti-black racism, most of the time professional musicians only momentarily waltz into schools and neighborhoods without making a real commitment to support the community. Guest performances allow orchestras and musicians to check off their charity obligations while evading responsibility in addressing concerns about diversity in the classical music community.
If orchestras truly care about expanding access to classical music, their musicians must actively immerse themselves within the communities they serve. As tenor Lawrence Brownlee eloquently stated in a recent New York Times article: “Artistic institutions need to be focused on representing and really serving the communities that they’re in. There needs to be community engagement, not community outreach. Outreach is something you do occasionally. But you’re always in the act of engaging; it’s a constant effort.”
I’m inclined to suggest that quantitative ways of measuring success, such as impact metrics, do more to help us feel like we’re making a difference, rather than accurately tracking the progress of our charity work. Under pressure from benefactors to produce “results,” nonprofit organizations often rely on facts and figures to convey their success, hence the tendency for orchestras to track the number of people who attend outreach concerts and publicize school visits in press releases. However, if as Vanier suggests, charity and community are intimately intertwined, we can evaluate the efficacy of charity work by examining the impacted communities and the quality of the relationships formed. Unlike impact metrics, studying the holistic health of the community provides a qualitative understanding of the effect that nonprofits and volunteers have, valuing commitment and care over fleeting monetary investment.
Connecting the Trenton Public Schools with Princeton University, the TAP Saturday Morning Arts program, to which TYO belongs, establishes a wide-reaching community amongst musicians and students from Princeton and Trenton. In spite of their differences, over the years Princeton student volunteers and Trenton students have created a beautiful, thriving community, united by a common passion for the arts.
In my time volunteering for TYO, I’ve come to realize that much of our work cannot be adequately captured by the numbers of impact metrics. In a Vanierian sense, it’s the minor, nearly imperceptible interactions between Princeton and Trenton students, indicative of the care and tenderness that permeate the TAP community, that demonstrate the success of the program. By observing and intimately experiencing such instances of kindness myself, I have renewed hope that we can remember the true meaning of charity.
I remember one rehearsal in particular, when violinist Collin Thompson successfully executed vibrato for the first time. The demonstration of his skill inspired others--including my own student, Aariana Flippin--to begin experimenting with vibrato on their own as well. It was also not uncommon for students to enthusiastically crowd around a more advanced player practicing a more difficult and well-known piece. Oftentimes in orchestra environments, openly performing a piece of solo repertoire is perceived as showing off, but at TYO rehearsals it was an exercise of vulnerability and camaraderie.
When I first began teaching Aariana, she often struggled to overcome her shyness and fully express herself. We joined the TYO community around the same time (she joined just a few months earlier than me), so over the past year and a half I’ve witnessed her development both as an individual and a musician. Much of Aariana’s growth occurred because of her own internal strength and curiosity, but TYO helped coax out her innate abilities and provided her with a space to flourish.
I’ve also found that the semi-casual community environment at TYO allows for Princeton student volunteers and Trenton students to balance the roles of “mentor” and “comrade.” Volunteers work alongside and not above their students, allowing Princeton and Trenton students to know each other as equals, rather than individuals from different communities. As a result, the TYO community subsists on a network of horizontal relationships, rather than a hierarchical structure with vertical power dynamics.
Reminiscent of the bonds of kinship fostered at TYO, I’ve grown to appreciate Aariana as a sister. We still message occasionally to share music with each other; sometimes, she sends me a few songs she’s been listening to, or asks if I can send her a video of me playing something on the violin. Although she graduated from high school this spring, I hope we have the opportunity to reconnect in the future.
As the current racial and political tensions in America have emphasized, institutional change is difficult because it requires us to radically rewire our minds and uproot long-established systems of oppression. For effective change to occur, we need to be patient with ourselves and others and learn to embrace discomfort. In many ways, efforts to revolutionize the way we think about race also require us to revisit the original meaning of charity, as charity has become the moral equivalent of slapping a band-aid over the deep wounds of difference and disparity that torment our communities. We have grown accustomed to using charity as a buffer, rather than a bridge between communities. In the words of Jolie Rocke, a participant in the HSO webinar mentioned previously: “It can’t just be about giving back to the people. It needs to be about justice. It needs to be about people being exposed to beautiful music, and us doing that together as a community, together.”