Purpose, Empowerment and the Experience of Volunteerism in Community
“Volunteerism isn’t right! Matter of fact, it is not good at all.”
With that, the preacher ended his speech, complete with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” coming from the crowd gathered. I was a 19-year-old at a neighborhood meeting in the mid-sized Midwestern city where I grew up, and my ears were burning. Throughout the meeting I heard several perspectives from my friends and neighbors on the volunteers and missionaries who had come to rehabilitate houses, tutor kids and work at the food bank in my neighborhood.
This preacher was alluding to a belief that I hear repeated in many of the discussions I’ve been in where community volunteerism was addressed: that similar to other “isms” in our society, volunteerism has become an addiction that serves to reinforce the social, attitudinal and structural barriers facing “others” in American society – children and youth, homeless, LGBTQ, differently-abled, people of color. These barriers limit the recipients of said volunteerism in their ability to experience authentic self-driven change in the situations they occupy.
However, my experience has also shown me that there is hope for volunteerism. For the last three years The Freechild Project has operated under the motto of “By, not to; With, not for.” This motto is strengthened by our mission to build active democracy by engaging young people in social change, particularly those who have been historically denied participation.
When the purpose of service and volunteerism is to strengthen democratic participation and community empowerment, volunteerism can be wholly beneficial. As Ivan Illich once observed about international volunteerism, “[Volunteers] frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons…” When conducted as part of a deliberately revelatory cycle, volunteerism can become a process for empowerment, as long as it is not at the expense of others’ self-determination.
After growing up occasionally homeless, then in a low-income community where my family and friends were the subject of much volunteerism, I served three terms in the AmeriCorps national service program. I developed a tutoring and mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi kids in the Midwest, ran a ropes challenge course for low-income youth in the Northwest, and assisted in the leadership of a service learning program in the Southwest. I know service work, and I promoted volunteerism to all kinds of people. However, my most riveting experience came when I worked for a larger national foundation where I was responsible for teaching young people about volunteering. I discovered that the language of “service” covered an attitude that was pious at best; at worst, it perpetuated a sense of noblesse oblige, the royalty taking pity on the peasants and giving them alms.
My own concern was coupled with others who I met in this volunteering. After several years, I worked with a group of people from across the United States to develop a teaching practice called Activist Learning. After exploring the benefits and faults of service learning, we defined Activist Learning as community learning characterized by people taking action to realize a society based on just relationships by seeking to change unequal power structures throughout our communities. However, after promoting Activist Learning for several years I discovered that there is another need that extends beyond schools and into communities. I see that need as a re-visioning of experience of volunteers.
Below is a model through which volunteerism can start to become emancipatory for ALL of its participants, including the volunteer and the community, the “giver” and the “receiver.” The Freechild Project believes that this model represents the most radical and powerful possibilities for people’s participation throughout our society. One of the goals of The Freechild Project is to realize the full participation of all people throughout society as equal members in decision-making and action. We have developed this model in order to represent our vision of democratic, community-oriented participation for ALL people. Individuals and organizations can use this model to start thinking about how volunteers of all ages can be integrated as empowered, purposeful participants throughout society.
I have re-envisioned sociologist Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation for this model. According to Hart, he developed the Ladder to introduce community workers to the practice of children’s participation, and its importance for developing democracy and sustainable communities. The model presented here is done in the same context, except for the purpose of sharing the goal with a broader audience. I believe that the importance of developing democracy and sustainable communities must be spread to all people, including the homeless, the impoverished, and all those regarded as “others” in American society.
Ladder of Volunteer Participation
Following is the Ladder of Volunteer Participation, including a brief explanation and examination. In this Ladder, Community Members are “insiders” from any community of people who have been historically been “others” in the United States. Volunteers are “outsiders” who have traditionally come into communities to provide “service.” They may include non-profit staff, AmeriCorps Members, teachers and others.
8) Equitable Partnerships with volunteers happen when projects or programs are initiated by community members and decision-making is shared among community members and volunteers. These projects empower community members while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the experience volunteers.
7) Self-Led Partnerships with volunteers happen awhen community members initiate and direct a project or program, and volunteers are involved in supportive roles only.
6) Equal Partnerships with community members happens when projects or programs are initiated by volunteers but the decision-making is shared 50/50 with community members
5) Community Consultation happens when community members give advice on projects or programs designed and run by volunteers. The community members are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by volunteers.
4) Community Assignments happen when someone else creates projects and community members are assigned specific roles and told about how and why they are being involved.
3) Tokenism happens when community members appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate.
2) Decoration happens community members are used to help or “bolster” a cause in a relatively indirect way, although volunteer do not pretend that the cause is inspired by community members.
1) Manipulation happens when volunteers use community members to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by community members.
This Ladder isn’t a static tool meant to describe whole programs or the entire experience of individuals. Instead, it is meant to help individuals identify where they are at any given point of their volunteering, and where they can aspire to. People can occupy many spots on the Ladder at the same time; organizations can engage different volunteers differently in order to meet their needs. The Ladder isn’t static.
While many community organizations seek to “fix” or “heal” the wounds in our society, it has been often noted that rarely are these works more than band-aids. The after school basketball program I ran for young people in my neighborhood when I was 21 did help keep kids off the streets. However, it didn’t help their parents get better jobs so they didn’t have to work two shifts; it didn’t help their grandparents strengthen their parenting skills so they didn’t feel so frustrated; ultimately, it didn’t help the young people learn more skills or become more involved in their community so they felt a sense of hope and purpose.
Volunteerism oftentimes serves to perpetuate the worst of these characterizations, often with negative effects on both the volunteers and the community members themselves. Instead of engaging community members on the top rungs of the Ladder, at most some organizations relegate them to the bottom rungs. How many homeless shelters do you know of that are operated by homeless people? How many afterschool programs for young people do you know of that are operated by young people? In some programs, when the recipients of rehabilitated homes help carry out the framing, plumbing and painting of their homes, are they actually learning about places the water lines and helping to choose the colors, or are they just finishing the nailing?
The challenge of reaching higher rungs on the Ladder of Community Participation is one that faces all individuals and organizations committed to validating and uplifting the skills and abilities of the people who are served, whether they are young people, people of color, or others. However, the reality is that all organizations cannot all be at the top rungs. Sadly enough, when reliant on dysfunctional trends to justify their existence, some groups actually work to keep communities from being on the Ladder at all. That is reality.
When considering community members’ empowerment in Brazil, Paulo Freire once wrote “those invaded became convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” The implication that volunteerism is an engine for a degrading, delineating social design is not new, but the challenge that faces us is: to make volunteerism a relevant, purposeful engine for democracy and sustainable communities today, and by doing so, to create a vibrant, purposeful society tomorrow.
In his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published a year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about what he called the world house. “This is the great new problem of mankind,” he wrote. “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
“All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors,” King continued, predicting a time in which not only African Americans would be fully free, but peoples suffering discrimination everywhere. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” he wrote. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
The challenge we face as responsible community workers, educators and other social providers is to build Dr. King’s world house, where he proposed a revolution of values. That is why we must aspire to lift volunteerism towards the poignancy which it could have. That is one where the community and the volunteer work with intention in unity for the common good. That is where I want to live.
You Might Like…
- To Hell With Good Intentions – A 1968 speech by Ivan Illich focusing on the injustice perpetuated by American volunteers working in Mexico, and when contextualized in the light of modern “service” work, offers a startling analysis of the volunteer movement in America.
- Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? – In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King laid out a clear analysis of the painful divide facing activists and community organizers. The problem is that we’ve fulfilled his worst fears. 1960s Connections he drew between Black Power, affirmative action and American segregation provide a clear glimpse into modern American apartheid; his prescriptions for community building, nonviolence and unity offer a roadmap for a different America.
- Mentoring the Mentor – This book is a written conversation between Paulo Freire and a number of promoters, practitioners and detractors who have beef with his analysis. “The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor’s goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history. This is how I understand the need that teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom, and development of those he or she mentors.” (from Chapter Sixteen: “A Response” by Paulo Freire).
- In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning – In 1994 a pair of university faculty wrote an academic analysis of service learning. They provided a basis for a lot of the modern criticism underway today, and allowed the service learning movement to breathe enough to allow critical thinking within its ranks. While that movement seems to have exhaled lately, Kahn and Westhiemer’s analysis is just as applicable today, and provides a great construct to learn from.
- Learning Through Activism – The Freechild Project’s action plan for powerful, purposeful learning through social change. Includes guiding principles and resources for young people, educators and activists.
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