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Does community service really change anything?

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Drawing on our studies on resource-poor communities and conversing with local students, we decided to address the need for clean water. Learning that India's new Right to Information Act mandates a timely response to citizen requests, and undeterred by India's infamous bureaucracy, students drafted a petition, got every resident of the seven-story building to sign it, and submitted it.

We also began cleaning the building using monsoon rainwater. Within 30 minutes into our effort, curiosity drew residents to see what our odd, intergenerational American/Indian group was doing.

Residents helped scrub, saying: "If you care about our living conditions we should take similar responsibility." Men, who rarely engaged in cleaning, participated by developing a pulley system to bring water buckets upstairs. Seeing this, residents of the adjacent building tackled their own hallways.

Spurred by our petition, the local warden informed over 25,000 residents that their home access to clean water would now be eight minutes every day – a considerable improvement over the 20 minutes available every three days.

Months later, this community has moved from distrust to action, addressing the quality of schools and access to medical facilities. A fundamental, sustainable transformation appears to be taking place. For all we took home from Mumbai, we have clearly left something of value.

Indian students asked about the biggest issue facing America. The answer is not recession, global warming, or healthcare, but how to engage young people to become changemakers. We learned that it requires venturing outside comfort zones, listening to community needs, and sometimes partnering with local organizations. And that's what differentiates well-intended programs to encourage global citizenship from those that seem more like cultural tourism.

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