Volunteerism is Bad

My friend Sara wrote to me over the weekend with some great questions about volunteerism, and I want to share my response to her with you. She wrote:

What in your personal experience is the catalyst from thought to action? Or is it backwards action then thought? In other words, what in the end is the common ingredient for mobilizing people to solve community issues in their own back yard? Is it oppression? some sort of tragic event? Or is it simply helping them connect the dots. Understanding that if they do A then B will happen and soon C will occur which will benefit everyone?

I sent the following in reply:

In my most honest analysis, I find that people must have an intensely real – or authentic – connection with the subject matter at hand. The common ingredient for real, powerful, meaningful and sustainable engagement, in my opinion, is authentic connection. From that place of authenticity comes forth the necessity for connecting the dots – but not in reverse order.

I am sincerely concerned that as a society we’re losing our collective ability to relate to the people around us. Commercialized social engineering based in neoliberal ideology is destroying our society Sara, and there is a crushing need to reverse that – but little indication that we’re going to do that.

If you don’t know what neoliberalism is, very basically it is the privatization of the “public good”. Think of charter schools, Blackwater, gated communities with private guards, and toll roads: All tasks that used to belong in the public sector that benefited the public sector, but that now are sold off to the lowest bidder in the name of government cost-cutting.

Meanwhile, those companies that buy up these formerly public services are reaping profit from cutting the services and jacking up prices for the “consumer” of their services, i.e. what was formerly known as “the public”. In return, “we the people” become are encouraged to become dissatisfied with the continued taxation of our lives, or however the anti-taxation crowd terms it. So more public services become privatized, and “we the people” become conditioned to the crappy, overpriced services they put out. We generally blame bad schools on poor teachers – not on the private corporate testing firms that lobbied for the extreme standardization of curriculum that limited those teachers’ abilities in the first place. When Blackwater slaughters innocent civilians in Iraq “we the people” watch the news, see the strange faces of foreign people and blame it on them, as our socially conditioned racism and white supremacy would have us do. So we become conditioned to believe in the mythology of privatization at the expense of what was formerly known as the “public good.”

So volunteerism suffers, “neighboring” suffers, and the public good suffers, all in exchange for the profits of the few who reign from on high.

My real concern is that there are some inconvenient convergences happening right now Sara. In the workshop I mentioned the technological divide, which is very real. However, working in tandem with that is another painful reality: Young people today, from the youngest age, are conditioned into this neoliberal hell, where the government is merely a puppet of the corporate overlords of doom who are making a killing off our ignorance.

In the meantime we’re getting poorer. The middle class is literally shrinking and more and more service jobs are getting created. Our society is evolving to further the aims of commercialism and consumerism, and our communities are falling apart because of it. You won’t find the neighbor sitting on her stoop until 9pm at night, shooing kids into their houses after dark – but you can find “Neighbor’s Day Care” hard at work until 9pm for only $1500 per month. Those working dads who used to walk the dog around the block and keep an eye out for prowlers? They’re down at the 5th Avenue Gym working out like the ads on TV told them to, and meanwhile, Mrs. McGillicutty’s house is getting broke into.

Its not like our society has ever worked perfectly before; I don’t particularly favor nostalgia. But I do look for examples. This is where personal investment in creating social change becomes tantamount Sara. We’ve got to stop trying to “sell” change to people the same way that marketers do; their job is to generalize and commodify everything. Our job is to personalize and make relevant. That’s a big difference.

So find out where people have investment – authentic, real and meaningful investment – in an issue. Dig into that – have them do a visualization to remember their youth, if you’re talking about youth issues – and explore that in community. If the group feels oppressed, then work from that place. If the group feels bitter, then work from there. If they’re concerned about a tragedy, about a catastrophe, about a media-induced myth, anything, then work from there. If they express hope, rage or righteous indignation, then you’ve done right – because they’re expressed emotion, and emotion is authentic, and that’s the investment you want. Then work from that place, rather than simply assuming that everyone in the room gives a flying hoot simply because they showed up for the party.

That’s all a long answer to your questions, but frankly you demanded more than flippancy.

I’d love to hear what you, the readers of my blog, think about the questions Sara asked and my response to her.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

2 responses to “Volunteerism is Bad”

  1. While volunteerism may be on its way out, I see more and more people making opportunties for others to do good in the world and make a living off it! This seems to be the rationalization of doing good, perhaps even becoming a religious-type experience. With environmentalism, animal rights, and human rights on the forefront of American minds, the following is growing and real action is becoming an everyday experience!


  2. This kind of privatization and profiteering are complicated, that’s for sure. Its difficult for me to really understand the social benefit of that missionary-type perspective, particularly when the best intentioned activism becomes detrimental to the community it seeks to serve. Then, instead of actually helping the people it supposedly targeted, this activism actually hurts them, all at the expense of making the “activist” feel better about their place in the world. At whose cost?


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