Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Berkeley Project (Pictures Added!)

I think most people would agree that community service is a worthwhile endeavor. Helping people, cleaning the city, improving others' quality of life - it can be a very altruistic act. Even those who are forced into it as punishment for wrongdoing are performing valuable services.

At the same time, however, it is one of those subjects that brings up in people the old crowd mentality. For the most part, no single person is responsible for the common areas in the neighborhood. When there is somebody in charge, she or he is unlikely to have the manpower (or peoplepower, rather) to get large-scale projects done. The members of the community who could provide that power are much too busy trying to live their own lives and solve their own problems. They simply don't have the time to volunteer.

The Berkeley Project tries to address this concern. It is a short-term (i.e., one day) mobilization of students to fix things all around the Berkeley area. In the fall, on BP Day, they get over 2000 volunteers divided up into teams with specific tasks at specific sites scattered throughout the city, where they work together with employees of the city and various service organizations.

This method provides the manpower for large tasks like repainting public buildings, or weeding and planting trees on road dividers, or even clearing trails in the Berkeley Hills. It allows students who wouldn't be able to make weekly commitments to not rule out community service as an option. Mainly, being so big, it raises awareness of the issue of service and the state of things in the community outside of the university area.

BP Month in the spring, on the other hand, is not quite as big. It's split into three weekends in March, with about 100 volunteers each Saturday. That's where I went today. Our team went to South Berkeley, where we weeded. And weeded. And planted some lovely plants. And ran into a variety of wildlife, including ladybugs, spiders, roly polies (pill bugs), swarms of ants, and even some centipedes. I don't think I've ever seen a centipede in America before.
Before: Pretty flowers can still be weeds, especially if they're overgrown. (All credit for the lovely photo goes to Catherine Lai)

Despite the multi-legged horrors, a bush stump that was as thick as a small tree, and the ridiculously obstinate grass in one corner (isn't grass supposed to have short roots?), we managed to efficiently extricate the weeds, to boldly go where a few centipedes have gone before, and even to save a few poor earthworms in the process. For all this work, we were paid in burritos, cookies, smiles, and thank yous from the passers by. Well worth the effort.

After: all weeded and ready for orderly growth, as befits a city planter. If I remember, I'll come back next year and take a photo after all the plants have grown out a bit. (Photo credit: Catherine Lai)

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