Service Core: Washington Park Conservancy

Washington Park. It's old.

On this brisk Saturday morning, eighteen MAPH volunteers made the quick walk to the Washington Park Refectory–a Daniel Burnham building on the Western edge of the park–to meet up with Madiem Kawa, founder and president of the Washington Park Conservancy. Kawa, who lives just across the street from the Jesse Law Olmstead-designed urban playground and preserve, is also the park’s Nature Area Steward. She leads monthly service days from March through October (and sporadically throughout the rest of the year), along with a number of walks, tours, and events. Because the park is right next door to the University of Chicago’s campus (and yet somehow remains a space into which few MAPHers actually venture during their time in the Program), MAPHCentral thought that some autumn outdoor work would be a great way to kick off this year’s Service Core.

This new series of events asks MAPHers to step off the University campus and think about the ways in which volunteer work might be related (or unrelated) to their academic inquiry. What does it mean to do community service in the context of humanistic research? What does it mean to do service in the first place, and how might an ethic of service help inform what we’re doing at MAPH?

Washington Park

Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, but developed as part of Hyde Park founder Paul Cornell’s larger plan for parks in the area, Washington Park was eventually connected to the World’s Columbian Exposition via the Midway. As Kawa pointed out, the park is home to the city’s largest cricket pitch, the DuSable Museum, an arboretum, and one of Olmstead’s signature lagoon islands. It’s the National Register of Historic Places and annually hosts the Soul Circus, among other of Chicago’s South Side festivals. In 2009, Washington Park was the centerpiece of Mayor Daly’s Chicago bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Many of the major facilities (a stadium and aquatic sports center) were to be located in the Park.

The Work

In the autumn, much of Washington Park Conservancy’s work centers on trash and weed removal, seed collection, and pruning/cutting back invasive plants. Along with upwards of ten bags of trash, we removed two willow trees, a maple, what seemed to your correspondent like a whole lot of weeds, and pruned six giant bushes. (They were really big). After three hours of work, we packed it in and headed back to MAPHCentral for a conversation that we hope will frame Service Core for the rest of the year.

The Conversation

As an introductory conversation on service and its relationship to academic work, we thought through a few questions that will remain consistent throughout the year:

  • What do we mean when we say service? Do you need to not get paid? Do we do service at work? In the library? Is everything service if thought of in a certain way?
  • Do we need to intellectualize service work or should it take up a different part of our life?
  • How might academic work be tied to an ethic of service? Is there something inherent in academic work that seems to resist the idea of service?
  • Why does service create its own mode of feeling? How? Is this mode gendered? (And if not, why did we get 16 women volunteers and two men?)
  • Should we avow or disavow the good feelings that accrue to volunteers? What does it mean to have a critical perspective with regard to your own thoughts and emotions while volunteering?

These questions don’t have specific answers. They’re hopefully a framework for thinking critically about volunteer work throughout the year.

Next Steps

The next Service Core Event will be the MAPH screening of The Interrupters. We’ll have the opportunity to talk with filmmakers Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz about the movie, as well as ask questions of Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Edie Bocanegra–three of the individuals profiled by the documentary. We’ll pick up with service work again in Winter Quarter, as we venture to as many of Chicago’s neighborhoods as possible to take a look at food service and poverty aid in town.

If you have any questions about Service Core, don’t hesitate to ask anyone at MAPHCentral. If you’d like to hear more about opportunities to volunteer on a regular basis, you can also contact Trudi Langendorf at the University Community Service Center (



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *