Low-Impact Community Service: Where the Talented Tenth of the Tenth Don’t Need to Spend their Time

November 29th, 2010 · 18 Comments

By Matthew Stieglitz

A friend once told me when it comes to Latinos in college, WEB DuBois’s adage of the “talented tenth” is more like the “talented tenth of the tenth”. In that light, many often wonder how educated Latinos can most effectively serve our community. As one Latino faculty member told me when I arrived to graduate school, “It’s great to be involved, but focus on getting your degree. Don’t burn out.” In order to avoid confusion or an existential debate, that is what this piece is about. It’s about not burning out. It’s about allocating our time effectively. It’s about creating and working towards a sustainable long-term vision that empowers our community for legitimate upward mobility. But more importantly, it’s about not being a disservice to our community.

Over the last few years, I’ve been asked during my free time to contribute time and resources towards the less fortunate among our community. These activities have ranged from ESL tutoring for migrant workers, speaking to high school students about staying in school, or attending meetings about the lack of Latino representation among collegiate faculty. With the exception of mentoring Latino undergraduates, ten times out of ten, I turn these opportunities down. Why? Because they entail spending the few free hours that are available in a week trying to save a lost cause that takes away from the big picture. While this may seem callous, heartless, and evil, the reality is those types of service are disservices because they are misappropriations of time and resources that should be allocated towards a greater type of Latino empowerment.

Now, the counter-argument is two-fold. 1) Any progress, no matter how small, is a net gain, especially if it can be sustained over time. 2) Our community has a significant need for any type of empowerment. Both are true, both are valid, and both are a disservice. At the end of the day, it’s a simple calculation: What impact are we having when the few that do make it spend countless hours in college planning and hosting Salsa nights, facilitating community forums, and tutoring migrant workers (who, as the term migrant indicates, are going to leave)? Are those pursuits closing the achievement gap? Are those pursuits increasing Latino representation in professional arenas? Are those pursuits effective allocations of time? Our culture should be celebrated, but it should not be celebrated at the expense of hours that can be allocated towards studying, maximizing Latino undergraduate potential, and, dare I say it, sleeping so that productivity the next day can be further maximized.

In the field of Public Administration, we are taught about effective resource allocation, efficient use of time, and cost-benefit analysis. The goal is significant, long-term gains. Subsequently, short-term gains are frowned upon unless they contribute to the greater vision of long-term success. Enter cultural events, ESL instruction, and forums such as meetings about lack of Latino faculty at universities that we (the students) will be graduating from in a short period of time. All represent short-term gains, detract from time that could be more effectively allocated elsewhere, and are a disservice to our community. So to the counterargument against me, I say let those who are not part of the struggle but want to provide ESL instruction or tutor disadvantaged youth allocate THEIR time towards those pursuits because we have bigger fish to fry. If you are committed to the struggle then your obligation is to the struggle, and by that I mean empowering ourselves to make a contribution to the struggle that goes beyond tutoring, cathartic community pow-wows, and sharing culture.

If we get caught up in such laborious, low-impact opportunities then it’s a disservice to the community. And if these pursuits are disheartening enough to push us out of the struggle, then they are criminal. So what does this mean? This means getting advanced degrees and acquiring the necessary resources to endow professorships at universities that increase the number of Latino faculty at colleges. Not wasting our time at forums about how to engage non-Latino university administrations on the matter. This means talking to the students who made it about going to graduate and professional school so they are empowered to enter arenas where our broken education, immigration, and healthcare systems can be addressed. Not spending time talking to those who have not or will not make it. This means allocating our time effectively so we don’t get burned out and end up leaving the struggle altogether. Not wasting our time away from the books and resources that as a mentor of mine says, “expand the boundaries of our intellect until sleep wins”.

In closing, it is now time to remind everyone of the following: we boast the nation’s highest high school drop out rate. We will represent one quarter of the US population before 2050. And we represent less than one percent of all graduate and professional degrees conferred. We need practical solutions, not rhetoric and fleeting symbolism. We need long-term gains, not short-term ones. We need real action, real solutions, and real change. This means our time and resources cannot be consumed with frivolous pursuits that are low-impact, because that relegates us to pleading with the decision makers when our focus should be on BECOMING the decision makers. We need to rise to provost positions, attain the wealth to endow professors at universities and shape the outcomes of elections, and ultimately become part of institutions. Then and only then should we focus on short-term and low-impact pursuits like sharing our culture. Ultimately, we cannot afford to sacrifice from our personal growth and development when small-scale opportunities arise on the side. There is a big picture we need to keep our eyes on, and in so doing that means making the painful decisions to turn down low-gain opportunities that detract from our ability to effectively serve the Latino community on a wider scale.

Matthew Stieglitz received his BA in Communication from the University of Delaware. He is currently a 2011 Master of Public Administration candidate at Cornell University concentrating in Government, Politics, & Policy Studies. After receiving his MPA Matthew will attend law school in order to merge his public affairs background with a legal education to most effectively advocate for Latinos.

Photo Credit: University of Southern California’s Raza Graduation 2009, from the collection of class speaker Wendy Carrillo, who is pictured with Billy Vela, Director of USC’s Centro Chicano

Tags: community organizing and activism · diversity · Education

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention Low-Impact Community Service: Where the Talented Tenth of the Tenth Don’t Need to Spend their Time -- // Nov 29, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LatinoPolitics, wendycarrillo. wendycarrillo said: Low-Impact Community Service: Where the Talented 10th of the 10th Don’t Need to Spend their Time: #education […]

  • 2 Wendy Carrillo // Nov 29, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Hmmmm. Very interesting and quite provocative perspective. I’m trying to use your equation on “low impact community service” on my own “free” work. It took some training, but I have learned to say “no” to some things and learned to ask for money on others. For the most part, I think Latinos have an innate desire to want to help our communities grow and prosper. I know that it’s important to speak to young people and have them see themselves in my own success, the “if I can do it, so can you” mentality. But the burnout that you speak about is very true and when I had my grad school adviser tell me the same, I didn’t know what to make of it. I was used to struggling and sacrificing, it had become a norm. And yep, I burned out. Graduating from USC w/ an M.A last year was one of the hardest things I have ever done and frankly, being around a very privileged academic institution was also quite eye-opening.

  • 3 HispanicPundit // Nov 29, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    I’m surprised – I actually found your article economically accurate, contrarian, and informative. The three main qualities I admire most in posts. I’m surprised because your title lead me to believe this is going to be another give-up-your-life-to-volunteer-at-a-community-center-plea. But it wasn’t. It focused on what I have been arguing for a long time now: we need more minority professionals, not “volunteers”.

    If I had to list one policy initiative that would have a dramatic positive impact on Latino progress it would be this: the closing down of all Chicano Studies departments across the country. No institution has done more damage to the progress of Latinos than Chicano Studies majors and the philosophy they promulgate. Long time readers of my blog know I have been harping about this for years (see here, here, and here, for example).

    The idea that you are going to do more by preaching than doing is an idea every culture has found wanting. Yet Chicano Studies majors teach it as scripture. How many gifted math students have you seen discouraged from taking a position that seeks “profit”, and steered into a career in search of “giving back”? These math students are then removed from being engineers, chemists, and entering the professional world, only to be herded into being a teacher in the ghetto, or a community organizer (personally, I think a lot of the push has to do with envy – “we are doomed to be poor Chicano Studies graduates, you should be one too” mentality…but thats a story for another post).

    And as I’ve said before, I don’t think being a minority math teacher in the ghetto is all that influential. Sure, you can help and will help a marginal student here and there but in comparison to how much you would help if you were a successful engineer, it pales. Kids in the ghetto aren’t stupid, and they are not going to look up to some math teacher making 30k a year, living in roughly the same neighborhoods they are – but with the added negative of having went to school for so many years just to be where they are. What kind of role model is that???

    Contrast that to an engineer making more money than anybody in the family – including parents. Driving a fancy car. Living in a wealthy neighborhood. Helping pay for nephews private schools, siblings university costs, and helping out the family financially in ways that would be unthinkable otherwise. Where you are now sought after for advice by uncles and aunts, where your father and the family respects you, invites you over as an equal, and glorifies you. That’s pretty much my life. And I can tell you from personal experience, the amount of people I have influenced is huge. Not just my sister. But my cousins. Friends. And even kids of friends of my aunts. Telling them the benefits of following the sciences comes with evidence that it works, and its quite a powerful argument.

    This is without even mentioning the personal benefits involved. Because of engineering my children and my family will have what every family wants: a good neighborhood, strong schools and solid financial support. To me, this is reason enough to be an engineer. But try explaining that in a Chicano Studies environment (trust me, I’ve tried) and its like talking to a rock.

    So in the end, I like the direction your post was taking, I just wish it went to its logical end.

  • 4 Dale Henry // Nov 29, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    ?”We will do what others expect of us. If they expect us to graduate, we’ll graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we’ll get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, we’ll go to jail, then that’s where we’ll end up too. At some point you …lose control”- from ‘The Other Wes Moore’. Using this logic, and pretending I’m the author of this article, then those “who aren’t and will never be anything” won’t ever change their condition. And one of the reasons this will be is because ‘the talented tenth’ never looked at those ‘beneath’ them with anything more than contempt. There’s something this guy forgot in his, my opinion, ignorant ass rant… the further we move from our roots, the less inclined we are to return to them over time. Service to others, real service, is as much habit as it is an intention. Intentions are cultivated through time and practice… doing the ‘little things’ this guy thinks means ‘wasting his time’. The black and brown conditions are not interchangeable, but there are aspects that are highly reflective. And I know there is a general sentiment among poor black people who get ‘handouts’ from the rich and successful blacks who think they can come ‘slumming’ and serving up their fake ass altruism. And that’s all I see this guy offering. I feel like our people (black AND brown) demand at least a little bit of authenticity from us, no matter our position when we try to help. This authenticity is typically diminished with the additional degrees and letters we have before and after our names. Who of our people will accept our help if we look at them contempt, treat them with disdain, and touch them with little more than an arm’s length of indifference? Sorry for the rant myself, but this guy just rubbed me the wrong way. — my post as a response to someone linking this article on their facebook page.

  • 5 Olga // Nov 30, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Well said Matthew, the big picture should always be the focus for our efforts. We as latinos need to learn how to keep the focus in the items which will ultimately give more bank for the dollar.

  • 6 BLS // Nov 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    How one chooses to allocate their time and effort to help others or further a cause is a personal choice. As such, there is no right or wrong choice. But clearly the efforts of those with greater resources will have a better chance of achieving far- reaching results.

  • 7 Anna // Nov 30, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Hispanic Pundit, you wouldn’t be an engineer unless somebody had decided to become a high school math teacher. But the best math teachers are retired engineeers/scientists like Jaime Escalante. They know how to apply math and they know how to communicate.

    I also think you’re right that far left activists discourage wealth accumulation and individual competition, and those are the ones who, for the most part, run Chicano Studies Departments and dominate all the political discourse. I can usually spot somebody with this mentality because they always say something to put themselves down. (Like the “The Talented Tenth of the Tenth”)

    Unfortunately, they don’t teach our history in other classes, so this is where we have to go to learn about it.

    Somebody should tell them that the best social program is a job. Not enough people open their own businesses or expand upon the small businesses that their parents own. Nearly every large American business/corporation started as a small business, often by a poor immigrant. But how many people attend the college with the goal of taking their parents’ small business to the next level? That isn’t encouraged at all. How many people go to college with the goal of creating jobs?

    Also when people have a poverty mentality, it can take several generations to overcome it because on some level that person doesn’t feel worthy of being wealthy. I think when you come from people who do menial labor they have to come up with ways of thinking that justify their station in life. So they telll themselves that poor people are more honest and have better morals than rich people. Stuff like that. Sometimes a college degree isn’t enough to eradicate that kind of conditioning. The problem is that they get jobs in the schools and spread this mentality to the next generation.

  • 8 HispanicPundit // Nov 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm


    Finally a response that we can agree on! Very insightful and I completely agree!

  • 9 IE // Nov 30, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Anna and HP,

    You two make more generalizations than anything else. Not sure why you two would be so negative towards Chicano Studies departments.

    As a UCLA Chicano Studies undergrad myself, I was fortunate to attend classes with students that have done pretty damn well for themselves.

    Two of my classmates are now practicing Law.

    One of my classmates was the youngest elected city council member of San Fernando, then mayor of San Fernando, then was the youngest woman elected to the California assembly.

    Another one of my classmates is the VP of Marketing for a well respected Equity firm in Los Angeles.

    I have another friend of mine from school, that albeit studied Asian American Studies, she’s been able to kill it financially working for companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and now Pandora.

    They all make more than 6 figures and not one of them is a scientist, engineer, or math genius.

    Me, well I’m completing my MBA and up until now, with my “Chicano Studies” degree, I’ve done pretty damn well for myself financially.

    While you both think that some particular type of education is more important than others, the reality is that it comes down to a persons desire to succeed.

    Nothing else!

  • 10 HispanicPundit // Nov 30, 2010 at 9:50 pm


    I never said that lawyers, politicians and other professions don’t do well for themselves – I said Chicano Studies majors don’t.

    The mere fact that you had to point to people who went ahead and got additional degrees (and one who didn’t even take Chicano Studies), kinda proves my point, now doesn’t it?

  • 11 IE // Dec 1, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Well, I have to once again disagree with you HP.

    If you do the “math”, only 2 out of 5 of my friends or (40%) currently have additional degrees. Me, I could’ve continued to do well without an MBA.

    Now granted, an MBA should provide more opportunities, but really, I didn’t “need” an MBA to continue to succeed with my “Chicano Studies” degree.

    As for my Asian American studies friend, I chose her as example because in my mind there’s really no difference, b/c both are Ethnic studies type degrees.

    However, it seems that maybe you live in world where only scientist, chemists, mathematicians, or professional degrees matter.

    And that I have to say is a bunch of crap.

  • 12 IE // Dec 1, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Matthew, sorry for getting into such useless banter between me and HP, because the reality is that you wrote a great piece, and I should’ve stayed more on topic with my comments.

    Look forward to your next piece Matthew.

  • 13 RAMON // Dec 1, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Chicano Studies as well as other ethnic studies programs were never meant to be the end-all degree. These programs provide the foundation for advanced degrees such as MAs, PhDs, JDs, and even MDs. Several of my former students who majored in Chicano/Latino Studies have continued their education in graduate and professional schools. These students chose their major and, in many cases, double majors out of conviction and a commitment to public and community service. I find this discussion very ironic given that public officials extoll the value of public and community service. Perhaps people should focus on the fact that our students are earning university degrees rather than placing a value on the type of major.

  • 14 IE // Dec 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Yes Ramon!

    Great points!

  • 15 HispanicPundit // Dec 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm


    You keep digging the hole deeper. Maybe we have a different definition of success. Even assuming your best case scenario, you named 5 success stories, 2 of which, not including yourself, did so with other degrees. One of the remaining three did not even get a degree in Chicano Studies. So you are left with 2 success stories, 3 if you include yourself, from sole Chicano studies majors. And this, to you, is success? Wow.

    It’s even more surprising when you consider the school: UCLA. Easily placed on everyones top 10 list of best Universities in America. You could get a degree in basket weaving and a good portion of the students should be expected to get decent jobs. Then there is the caliber of students that are accepted, easily in the top half of their graduating class. Imagine what other majors would have done with students with such potential? Yet even with all of this behind them, you could come up with at most 3 success stories out of your Chicano Studies bachelors degree? How sad (again, one wonders how much Chicano Studies itself actually played into their success – I bet the bulk of it was pure UCLA name recognition and/or connections made on campus).

    I’m curious IE, what do you think happens to those students that go to universities much further down the ranking list? Schools like Northridge (of which, supposedly has a “great” CS dept – apparently another definition difference), Cal State LA, LB and others? It’s easy: failures. I know many.

    Such opportunity lost. It saddens me. All of these students paid the same for their college degree as the engineering major, economic major, finance major, biology major, accountant major etc but got 1/100th the value. What’s worst is they come out brainwashed. Feeding their cancerous doctrine to the rest of us.

    I’m convinced that the real reason universities have Chicano Studies programs is to allow them to continue their affirmative action programs without adversely affecting their important “core” majors. What happens to the actual students, and the poor soles that actually take the Chicano Studies literature seriously, they couldn’t careless. It gives them the feeling of moral superiority without actually having to sacrifice anything.

    But that doesn’t mean we should support it.


    Of course they weren’t meant to be end-all degrees, you cant do anything with them. You basically have to pursue some additional degree, to get financial return from your Chicano Studies degree. And it’s not like Chicano Studies added any value to these additional degrees – they allow pretty much any bachelors degree as a prerequisite, Chicano Studies included.

    However, this comment of yours struck me as especially in error: Perhaps people should focus on the fact that our students are earning university degrees rather than placing a value on the type of major.

    This would only be true if you were insensitive to the cost of education, ie rich. Which most of us are not. And especially not those who end up taking Chicano Studies as a major. Education cost a lot of money and time. Precious time.

    As someone who is helping to pay for a university education (my sisters – studying engineering at Cal Poly), I can tell you that it’s not cheap. It’s also very time consuming – it takes years of a persons most productive years. When you look at those two things from a financially constrained perspective, you have to see it as an investment – not an end in itself.

    And from an investment POV, I think we can all agree that Chicano Studies is a serious failure.

  • 16 RAMON // Dec 3, 2010 at 11:29 am


    The “failure” of Chicano Studies exists in your mind. What do you have against this discipline? By the way, the name is Ramon.

  • 17 HispanicPundit // Dec 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    I don’t have anything Chicano Studies personally…aside from what I said in my first post: “If I had to list one policy initiative that would have a dramatic positive impact on Latino progress it would be this: the closing down of all Chicano Studies departments across the country. No institution has done more damage to the progress of Latinos than Chicano Studies majors and the philosophy they promulgate. ”

    I even provided links where I explain this further. But it’s really no more complicated than that. No other organization, policy issue, or university program, has taken as many aspiring minorities with so much potential and then doomed them to a life of poverty – and then pushed them to encourage others to take the same route. It’s worse than gangs really, cuz it takes the brightest of our generation, as opposed to the already problematic.

    Is that clear enough?

  • 18 What Did You Major In? // Dec 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    […] piece was inspired by a comment on my last blog post about abolishing Chicano Studies departments because “they doom aspiring minorities to a lifetime […]

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