STAFF Q&A/There’s a place for everyone at Civic House, says David Grossman. Even a future investment banker can work for the greater good.
“We want to help students move in their perception of what this is about.”
For David Grossman civic engagement has been a way of life since high school. Throughout his college years—at Bucknell and Columbia—he continued his involvement in community service work and social activism, and as a high school history teacher, his first career, he worked in Spanish Harlem and at a tribally controlled Pueblo Indian school in Santa Fe.
When he came to Penn, in 1990, it was for a job in Career Services. Grossman enjoyed the counseling aspect and the one-on-one work with students, but before long he gravitated back to community service, becoming director of Penn’s Program for Student-Community Involvement, which, in 1998, became Civic House.
Occupying a Victorian building that used to house Penn’s Public Safety Division—suspects were handcuffed to a bench in the kitchen to be photographed—Civic House is the University’s hub for community service and social activism. Grossman oversees dozens of student-run initiatives, as well as broader social advocacy efforts and educational programs designed to guide students toward a lifetime of civic engagement.
Q. Are students today more or less committed to community service?
A. I think students are more sophisticated about how they’re looking at it and more engaged in terms of numbers. More students than ever—86 percent or something—are talking about having been involved in high school, and fully a quarter say they’d like to extend that commitment to their undergraduate years. We experience that here, though our stock-in-trade is about the depth of that engagement as opposed to just getting the numbers. It’s chicken and egg, too. Do we see more students more deeply engaged because Penn has devoted resources toward this enterprise or is it the way society is moving?
Q. Penn is known for strong pre-professional programs. What interest would a future CEO, for example, have in Civic House’s programs?
A. We try to help students recognize the many ways they can make their commitments manifest. Sometimes I get students who might want to be investment bankers when they leave and they feel they have no place here. I say, “You absolutely have a place here.” Part of that is helping them look toward their futures holistically. In composing a life that comprises what they’re doing professionally they don’t have to compartmentalize. There are lots of ways to be citizens and to be civically engaged that cross boundaries of profession, class and interest.
Q. How do you balance benefit to the community versus benefit to the students?
A. There’s an often-repeated story where a student talks at graduation about working in a soup kitchen and he says he hopes his grandchildren get to have the same experience. Most of us think that’s not the point. The point is to make ourselves obsolete. On another level it speaks to the power of the experience. We want to help students move in their perception of what this is about. And so we have workshops helping them to understand West Philadelphia and talking about how to overcome the divisions of privilege and race and class implicit to this work. We have to help them understand not only are they offering something very valuable, they’re also going to learn through this experience. They need to open themselves up to the notion that maybe they’re not “all that.”
Q. Your work goes beyond just the local community. For example, you recently led a group of 14 staff and students on a relief trip to Biloxi to help victims of Katrina. Tell me about that.
A. We worked mostly in the smaller communities just west of Biloxi, truly at the center of the storm. When we got out there it seemed as if it had happened a few weeks ago, not four months ago—just the enormity of it. The work was not so much about reconstruction and rebuilding as it was about gutting homes and cleaning out yards. The people were really challenged in so many ways. Some people were out of work because the economy was gutted, some people had physical limitations and many were just emotionally overwhelmed. We worked with a few people who were helping their neighbors but couldn’t face their own homes. It was a powerful experience for all of us who went in different ways.
Q. Are you planning any follow up?
A. One of the students is organizing a trip for spring break because she feels she needs to go back and help a different kind of community. Other people want to get involved in broader governmental concerns because to a person people there felt let down by their government. One of our groups worked with a man who said after the storm calmed down the first people he saw were Canadian Mounties, the second were the Mexican army and the third might have been the Red Cross. They all got through before he saw the National Guard or FEMA. There’s so much more to do.
Q. I’d imagine in your job there’s always so much more to do. How do you achieve a balance between work and home life?
A. My commitments carry into all hours and they certainly keep me away from the dinner table a bunch, but I try to be very aware about modeling what balance looks like. Penn is a place full of a lot of really smart, committed, accomplished people but I’m not so sure we’re always so good at observing that balance with our family and personal life.
Civic House is planning a presentation on the Biloxi trip later this month. Check the web site at www.vpul.upenn.edu/civichouse/ for more information.
Originally published on February 9, 2006