Naomi Campbell and Community Service

Naomi Campbell's short community service stint was splashed over the tabloids last week, causing the media to focus its attention, however briefly, on the topic.

Aside from enduring five days of sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, Naomi (or the "Dumpster Diva" as she was dubbed by the paparazzi), came up looking pretty good, managing to garner non-stop coverage of her dazzling fashion sense.

What took a beating was the idea of community service as a meaningful court mandate.

Even the normally staid New York Times got into the act, writing this passage on Sunday. "Ah, Naomi. Maybe it was when you stepped out of the black Cadillac Escalade in your gray fedora and chinchilla (a furry cousin to New York's Taco Bell-loving rat) coat and your bodyguard handed your black bag to a police officer, who carried it, valet-like, into the sanitation depot at Pier 36. Maybe that was the moment when the community service ideal seemed to lose someting in the translation."

Add celebrities and tabloid reporters together and ridicule is inevitable. Wisely, the Department of Sanitation (where Naomi performed her community service) decided to have her complete the work behind closed doors, preventing a replay of the Boy George disaster, in which photographers took pictures of the singer sweeping the same spot over and over again.

Still, behind the jokes is a serious, and (for us) a potentially debilitating belief: that at best, community service is humiliating make work with no redeeming value, the equivalent of breaking rocks by the side of the highway.

My sense is that community service advocates are always careful to emphasize the hard-nosed nature of the work to avoid the "soft on crime" tag. At Bronx Community Solutions, we certainly try to send a message about accountability: for example, members of our crews wear orange vests that clearly mark them as participants, and they work hard, painting over graffiti, cleaning step streets or picking up trash in the park.

But we also aim higher. In part, it's an issue of respect: our crew supervisors treat participants firmly but fairly, and often end up helping them get a job or a referral to a drug treatment program. (One of our crew supervisors, Ramon Semorile, even teaches a Spanish-language social service class once a week.)

It's also a matter of the work itself. Not surprisingly, our participants know make work when they see it. That's why we try so hard to organize meaningful community service projects, such as assembling health care kits for WorldVision, an international charity, for distribution overseas. We also appreciate that our partners at World Vision start the day by briefing our participants on how the kits help combat AIDS in Africa.

Even more traditional work can be rewarding: when our participants painted over graffiti outside the New Friendly Day Care Center, the facility's director brought everyone hot coffee. It's hard to ignore the benefits of having children (and their parents) walk past a freshly painted wall.

Meaningful community service is a win-win for the participants and the community, but admittedly it can be hard to organize for the thousands of Bronx Community Solutions participants who have to complete a work obligation in addition to social service. After two years, however, I think we can say we're moving in the right direction.