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.

2017 Ladder of Volunteerism
This is the Ladder of Volunteerism, © 2005-2017 by Adam Fletcher.

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.

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Elsewhere Online

  • 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.

Better Volunteering

Adam Fletcher speaking at a youth involvement conference in 2014.

I think all organizations that engage volunteers have an obligation to engage them in critical self-examination, especially about the service they are seeking to embark in.

I have promoted structural change for years is because it can be less threatening to encourage volunteers to look at change the policies, programs, and activities within a community, rather than to look at themselves. However, even that structural work, done absent critical reflection, is devoid of the type of solidarity I suggest organizations seek to foster within and between volunteers and service recipients.

I first felt the impact of noblesse oblige in my own community growing up as a teenager in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. It was one particular summer when groups of volunteers repeatedly showed up at our community center to do projects, excluding me and my friends from helping out when we asked to, that I realized they were serving themselves more than us: by painting, leading games, cooking food, and doing work in our lives they were trying to feel better about themselves.

From that place, and then three years of AmeriCorps and 13 years of a nonprofit career that I devised a model to illustrate motivations for service in 2001. Since then, I have worked with thousands of people to help them identify if they are motivated by pity, sympathy, empathy, or solidarity in order to serve others.

It was that model that showed me that we must encourage volunteers to actively seek to change their perceptions about service and volunteerism (and thus, their attitudes and their lives). Doing anything less actually puts many organizations in the position of perpetuating a type of hypocrisy that damns their best intentions. I think we can do better than that- and that we have to, for the sake of our society.

For me, that means a course of activity that might begin with a volunteer contacting an organization and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Immediately, the organization provides the volunteer with a brochure or a web address that asks five critical questions about volunteering for them, to the effect of,

  • “Why do you want to volunteer?”
  • “Who do you think benefits by you volunteering with our organization?”
  • “What difference do you think volunteerism makes in your life,”
  • …And so forth, sussing out the motivations for volunteerism.After that the organization would train each individual volunteer according to their motivation: The person who comes from a place of pity or sympathy would embark on a course of activities that would help them identify how they can relate to and engage with service recipients in a more empathetic way; the person who comes from empathy would be driven towards solidarity.

In this way we can take volunteerism out of the rut it is in, and move a lot of effort to a brand new place!

Some Observations About Social Change


I started my first community organizing campaign with a group of friends when I was 14. Involved in formal and informal youth engagement work throughout my teens and early 20s, I got my first job supporting youth involvement and youth activism when I was 24. I haven’t stopped since then. Starting The Freechild Project when I was 25, I began reading the research supporting community organizing, activism, and social change insatiably. It’s been 13 years now, and I’ve seen a few things.

Some Observations about Social Change

Following are a few observations about changing the world that I could think of. Let me know what you think of them.

Anyone of any age can change the world.

A person’s depth of understanding about social justice isn’t limited to age. As a young person, I had experience and grew up in a community with a lot of deep experiences with discrimination, alienation, and segregation; lacking the verbiage to express their oppression, they turned to the language of action, creating community in gangs, generating income with drugs, expressing frustration through graffiti. Conversely, I’ve sat in rooms full of adult educators and youth workers and listened to self-proclaimed youth advocates pontificate about “us” and “them,” while they launched into diatribes about the ways young people act, dress, and talk… Ignorance knows no age, either.

Critical reflection is the gateway to social change.

In my experience, the “soundness” of an individual’s understanding about social justice is directly related to the amount of critical reflection they have engaged in. This can be both self- and community-reflection that questions our assumptions, values, and perspectives as we’ve experienced them in our own life. Paulo Freire, the acclaimed father of popular education, long espoused the necessity for oppressed peoples to critically examine their own actions as well as those of their oppressors. I have shared this experience with several groups of young people in their teens, and have heard about it done with younger people. The results of this may lead in many directions, including the “firm-groundedness” of which you speak. Many educators, including authors Ivan Illich and John Holt, have cited other outcomes, including broadened questioning of schools, government structures, and other social institutions. Personally, I’ve gained deeper ownership, commitment, and hope for the future through critical reflection.

Assumptions are ignorant.

There is a particular danger in saying, “You wouldn’t understand” to anyone. That gives many people permission to bombard others with righteousness, the type that popular media fills so much of our time with already. I have seen people with incredibly sophisticated, empathetic, and knowledgeable perspectives about social change; and again, I’ve seen others with extremely shallow understandings. Our perceptions shouldn’t be the determining factor for engaging people in social change work; interest and investment should be.

Authenticity means too much.

I think that by focusing on the whether peoples’ engagement is authentic, a lot of people are let “off the hook” because they don’t know how to give others their own space to speak, or how to engage them in collective community space. This is a form of scapegoating that easily reinforces the supposed “enigma” of engaging people. The real questions here may be, “Do we really want to hear the voices of other people?” and “Are we really looking for people who take risks and make decisions, or do we want to reaffirm our assumptions?”

After all, getting our ideas out of other people’s mouths is a ventriloquist’s trick, not a sign of meaningful engagement or autonomy. As a whole, society has so many attitudinal and structural barriers to engaging people that the question of whether or not anyone can or should actually become engaged needs to be answered first.

Don’t think simplistically.

The systems surrounding and encompassing all our lives are complex beasts. Thinking naively about them and trying to over-simplify them does no favors. Why do we think about having people involved in protests and rallies instead of their infusion throughout the “movement” as a whole? Where are people in the planning and decision-making processes that affect them most? It is vital to engaging people to move beyond tokenism and decoration, and their further engage and infuse everyone as leaders, teachers, and organizers throughout social their lives. When Saul Alinsky wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within,” this is what he was talking about.

Engaging people in changing the world is often trivialized by well-meaning people who, without conscious effort, often perpetuate discrimination of all kinds by patently denying others the opportunity to become deeply engaged. We must move from engaging people as decorations and start seeing everyone as a potential partners.

Popular assumptions don’t determine ability.

Media, politicians, and others are involved in a plot to turn identity-against-identity throughout American society in an attempt to keep people separate and incapable to work together. That’s made many organizers susceptible to their negative portrayals. However, in many cases the people who were supposedly least capable were the ones to make others aware of injustice. In one particularly poignant example, young people in the Philadelphia Students Union have led their communities in organizing for increased school funding, alternative school curricula, teacher pay raises, and more.

We have to dig into the reason WHY.

The crux of the issue is whether people truly understand why they are changing the world. Similar to many people, social change agents often believe that they are doing something for the “good” of doing it without exploring the meaning or purpose of their actions. This is how missionary-style service work has grown so popular in the U.S. and around the world, despite religious missionary work receding from popularity. Many community-based organizations actually exploit the oppressions of low-income communities and people of color in order to further their “service” work! Many of these same organizations use people as “safe” volunteers who don’t “safe” activities like picking up trash, serving homeless people meals, coloring pictures for grocery stores and politicians to hang in their windows. Is this meaningful social change? No. Is it “safe”? Yes. Are people told that it is valuable? Sure! And these things do have value, since the people who are leading the activities they reinforce their power over others, they are surely valuable to them. To the recipients of the service they exhibit the “proper” place for social change (arbitrary and irrelevant).
Everyone can be engaged in deep, meaningful, and powerful social change, if that’s what we want. If we want something else, we need to consider what that is and why we’re doing it.

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Nobody Owns Volunteering

Nonprofits searching for purpose after the ship went down… The ship’s going down and all the rats are swimming for their lives!

A long time ago, back in the 1990s, the federal government decided to build the nonprofit volunteerism sector in the United States. At first this brought menial efforts from fledgling organizations that actually became powerhouses in social change across America.

Then it brought out the rats.

They flocked onto the big ship of national service that launched from the docks of the White House. This colossal beast carried AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America into existence, as well as shoring up VISTA and the Senior Corps. Millions of people became volunteers, serving their communities in all kinds of ways.

On the Learn and Serve deck of the ship, schools actually got money to support classroom opportunities that infused substantive learning with real community needs. This had the ability to actually, tangibly demonstrate the value of schools to communities, and the abilities of young people to really, truly transform the places where they lived in positive, powerful ways. Astronaut John Glenn was on board, taking this cruise to the highest of heights!

Unfortunately, the ship got hit, and now its going down.

Last year, the US Congress defunded Learn and Serve America, almost wholly ending the federal government’s support for the service learning movement in one fell swoop. With a massive hole in the stern of the ship, volunteerism started taking on water and going under. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t volunteering- it just means they’re not taking cues from the federal government the ways they used to. Like through learning. Rather than using community service to learn from, the feds are concentrating their money on making students learn through tests–but that’s another post for a different day.

This post is to show that as every rat organization is grabbing for anything to float on so they don’t drown because the government took their money away. Suddenly, everyone wants to own volunteering. A lot of terms seem to be up for grabs too, as youth service, service learning, civic education, community youth development, and so many other phrases are being grabbed at.

The reality is that nobody owns volunteering. Today, as I spoke with the spectacular Charles Orgbon of Greening Forward, I thought to reassure him of that. I have seen the big rats be very defensive of their pieces of wood when the ship was intact, and now that they’re sinking, many are bumping around, tussling, and loosing their footing to other orgs (i.e. Hands On and POLF). As a young org leader, I think Charles’ good work might be targeted by some of these rat organizations to mooch off of or otherwise profiteer from. I’ve seen it too many times.

So, all of you fighters, advocates, and heroes out there doing the good work, please keep doing it no matter what they say. Nobody can take what is ours together, so long as we stand together. Charles, this includes you! Nobody owns volunteering, and that starts with your good work. Keep it up!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted at adamfletcher.net!

Critical Thinking About Volunteerism

This last month I’ve been talking with Emma Margraf, the Director of Special Projects at the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties. Our conversation is a critical dialog on volunteerism in American society, and we plan to continue it. Following is the text of the first blog entry from this series, with the intro written by Emma. Go to the original blog to share your thoughts (linked in the title below). – Adam

Bouncing Balls in the Hallway

For the past year, the blog for the Volunteer Center has been about the adventures of our Executive Director, Sara Ballard, as she volunteered her time in the community and got to know more and more about the amazing things that happen here. It’s been a great path for her to travel, but we’ve decided to change it up a little and incorporate all of the different aspects of our work – particularly the things that keep us excited, interested, passionate, and involved in what we do.

Ever since Adam Fletcher, the Director of CommonAction moved into our office, I’ve been having a lot of fun. I find myself in the hallway bouncing big plastic balls back and forth and debating how to make the most impact, how to build the most capacity, and how shake things up. The bouncing ball aspect is important, but I can’t tell you why. It’s how we get to our biggest, brightest, and most impactful ideas. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to transcribe an interview of sorts with him here, and you can draw your own conclusions. Are you ready? Here we go:

Emma: I have a question I think only you can answer, Adam. Are you ready for this? I’m a little concerned that for the most part when people volunteer in their community, they aren’t really accomplishing as much as they could. Do you know what I mean?

I’m not saying it’s their fault, or anyone’s fault at all, just that the precedent has been set for volunteering to be very temporary, where we’d like it to be sustainable. If you were all powerful in the universe, where would you start with that problem?

Adam: Emma, I’m always ready for a nerdy conversation about volunteerism!

To answer your question, I would begin by having everyone look at why they volunteer. See, in order for volunteering to be really effective, people have to be genuinely empathetic with those they want to serve. You can’t be empathetic if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing. So the first place I’d start with the problem you stated is looking at why.

But more importantly Emma, I might suggest that you aren’t addressing the right problem.

Emma: Huh. Way to throw out the gauntlet with the open question that has me thinking and thinking. What’s the right problem? (HA. RIGHT problem.) Is it volunteerism addressing actual empathy? I feel like we should recognize that there is a range of emotion within the understanding of empathy. Some define it as the understanding of others’ feelings, some as the ability to walk in other people’s shoes.

I for one was raised within the “there but for the grace of god go I” school of empathy, but that’s not what everyone believes. We were taught that it would take a simple twist of fate to turn our luck and leave us in serious poverty, or poor health, and without that which we needed to survive. And so it was our responsibility to look out for others. We are our brothers keepers, we are our sisters keepers — E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One.

And because it was how I was raised, that makes it right. Isn’t that the way it works?

Adam: The problem is that you are assuming that anything, anybody, anywhere needsyour help. That’s easy to do, and volunteers do it all the time. Kids in schools need tutoring. People without homes need that house built. Roadways need to be cleaned. People who can’t read need to be taught how to read.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe literacy and housing and environmental health are important. However, I don’t think that going blindly into the night assuming that any of those problems needs us to fix them is the right way. The right way has something to do with helping volunteers see that they benefit from giving as much if not more than the recipients of their volunteerism. This truism has been known for a long time in the fundraising field – teach givers that their philanthropy benefits both them and the recipient and they’re more likely to give more money in a more sustained way. That should be the rule with volunteers, too, in every situation, all of the time.

Emma: I have given that fundraising training. During that training you ask the group to tell you who benefits more from a donation to a non-profit, the donor or the non-profit? Those new to fundraising say the non-profit, those who are experienced say the donor, always. What I wonder about, when applying it to volunteers, is how heavy and complicated race and class and sexual orientation and gender and personal history issues will get when you are asking someone to check your motivations.

Adam: You’ve hit the nail on the head Emma, and identified exactly why we are not already asking these questions whenever a volunteer walks through the door: we’re scared of what we might hear. We might find out that someone hurts, or that somebody feels righteously indignant, or that someone somewhere somehow thinks they did something wrong. Often that someone is us, ourselves. Pair that with the intonation that volunteerism heals the soul, and suddenly volunteerism becomes self-help, and self-help saves the day. And that’s the problem.

Emma: You remind me of something that happened to me years and years ago. Right after the Rodney King verdict, I was walking through one of the toughest part of Oakland with a long-time friend. He’s African-American, I’m white (as far as I can tell), and he was angry. His response to the verdict was that the black community should rise up, take California, and kick everyone out. In particular, NO WHITE PEOPLE ALLOWED. My immediate response was to say, “except me, right?” He said no. I might get a visitor’s pass, but he’d have to consult with his people.

I was really offended. The truth about that situation was that he loved me, we had a long time friendship, I grew up in Oakland. But I wasn’t allowed in.

Adam: It was probably that love that allowed him to speak honestly to you. Speaking from my personal experience growing up I can attest to the feeling that used to well inside me whenever somebody foisted assistance onto me and my family. That feeling, which is hard to name, is one part humility and one part inability, mostly because it felt like whenever somebody forced charity onto my family we were obligated to take it. In turn, I felt forced to believe that because we had to take charity we were somehow lesser than those who had given it.

In this same way, well-meaning volunteers often force themselves onto the organizations, communities, and individuals who they choose to serve. I understand your story about your friend to mean that he didn’t want any white person, you included, to force themselves into the fictional country of people of color he conjured up; rather, he wanted people of color to have the right to let in white people as they chose to, rather than as they forced themselves in.

Emma: I’m certainly not offended anymore. I love the people that can speak that way to me, and I love being able to do the same. Every day volunteers ask me why they sometimes their phone calls to a particular group with an offer to help aren’t returned. Sometimes the answer is, we can’t use your help right now. Sometime the reason for that is because people you’d like to help are trying to sort out what they need and how they need to get it. They deserve that time.

Adam: This is the way that our socio-economic system works. We teach volunteers they have something to give and we expect them to give it. The underlying lesson that people who receive this volunteerism learn is that they must accept and appreciate whatever they are given. In this way our society forces every poor, low-income, working class, and middle class person into indentured existences by training them to aspire to lifestyles they simply cannot attain, for whatever reason: credit, education, opportunity… Whatever “it” is, something keeps them from having “it.”

It is through this logic that we actively enshrine volunteerism’s role in our society today. Volunteerism is becoming a defacto way to achieve enlightenment and self-satisfaction for those who volunteer. At the same time the recipient of that volunteerism is bound to the social position they occupy, primarily because the unspoken language of volutneers is that, “I am better than you because I do something for you from the goodness of my heart.” This disables the recipient and reinforces that socio-economic hierarchy which repressed them to the place of needing charity in the first place. It’s a wicked cycle.

Emma: It’s funny that we’ve gotten to this, because the other day I facilitated a conversation between volunteer managers where they were concerned about keeping every single volunteer. They were worried that they were losing volunteers after their orientation trainings, and they were worried about how to keep short-term volunteers involved who didn’t want to be there.

I tried to introduce the idea that they didn’t need everyone who darkened their door. I suggested, fairly directly, that they should be picky about who they let volunteer in their organizations and that they should power through without the folks who didn’t show up. They didn’t agree.

Later on, I brought this subject up with the director of a local program who recruits volunteers for long-term, high demand work with court-dependant children and she said, “oh no, I say thanks for stopping by! And let them leave. People who drop out in the middle of a training are people who, if I’d successfully talked them into staying, would most likely be back in my office a few months later having a conversation about how it’s not working out. Self-selection makes my job easier.”

I bring this up to say this: it’s a partnership.

Adam: Yes, a partnership – in a mechanistic, institutionalized sense. I want to aspire to something higher though, and maybe that’s my Achille’s heel. I think that we can ascend, as a society, to utter solidarity in our every action and reaction. We have to reach higher than mediocre, and I would suggest that merely having convenient partnerships throughout our society as mediocrity.

Solidarity, taught, nurtured, and sustained in our every interaction, could allow every person to fulfill their hopes and dreams, while simultaneously defeating our current condition of apathy toward our fellow humans – because through solidarity those hopes and dreams would be as Langston Hughes wrote about in his poem, “Freedom’s Plow”:

“Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,

But a community dream.

Not my dream alone, but our dream.

Not my world alone,

But your world and my world,

Belonging to all the hands who build.”

Emma: With that, shall we leave this here and post it on the blog? Or are we solving all the world’s problems today?

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

Volunteering for Tomorrow: Why Intergenerational Equity Matters

The following entry was written for “Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” the blog of the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties.

When I look at the place where I live, sometimes things seem worse off than ever. There are huge government deficits and growing unemployment; Social Security is running out and we’re drilling for oil in every pristine corner of the planet. Here in our own town homelessness feels louder than ever, and my jobless friends can’t find work that fills their stomachs, let alone their pockets or their souls. These are challenging times.

Yet, somewhere between the blurry lines, socially-conscious media has seeped into my brain, leaving me with the lesson from my toilet paper package, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” For me, this adage is defines intergenerational equity. First used in economics, today when I work with adults and youth focused on civic engagement I use intergenerational equity to describe the reciprocal awareness each generation has about the people and events that have come before them and the people and events that are yet to come.

When we’re volunteering throughout our community, either as leaders or followers, planners or doers, I think it is important that we each see the responsibility we have to acknowledge the people who have come before us, see what impacts they have had, and figure out how we can build upon those actions. We also have a duty to name our goals and to look ahead at what we might be causing. Using the concept of intergenerational equity as a way to think about these things, we can really begin seeing why we do what we do, and how our actions affect the world around us long after we’re gone.

Several years ago I volunteered with a local nonprofit that replanted a patch of native vegetation along a local waterfront. While dozens of people were planting several of us found signs that the area had been planted before, including old tags from native plants identical to what we were planting. After a few days of trudging the job was done, and my volunteerism felt good. But 10 months later all the plants looked dead, not rising with the fall rains. A year later the area was grown back over with invasive species, and I was bummed. Talking with the project coordinator, she found old newspaper articles that talked about the toxic dirt in that area, and two years later she geared back up volunteer efforts; only this time they took steps to analyze the soil and mitigate the toxins. Now that patch has looked great for more than 5 years. In that same way I am eager to volunteer in my daughter’s elementary classroom here in Olympia as often as I can. Every time I leave there I’m a little bit exhausted and a lot inspired by the energy and excitement of the students and their teacher. But I also rest assured knowing that the impact I’m having goes far beyond any individual student or day in class; instead, I know that seeing a familiar adult face week after week helps acclimate to supportive and sustained role models. Being a male, I also know that I’m influential that way, too.

Considering how intergenerational equity can drive our volunteerism and affect our communities can allow us to be more successful in all of our efforts. Ruth Bader Ginsburg once asked, “Who will take responsibility for raising the next generation?” I want to expand that and ask, “Who will take responsibility for raising the past generations, raising the next generations, and nurturing the present generation?” Intergenerational equity demands nothing less.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Supportive Environments for Youth

safeandsupportiveenvironsCreating a safe and supportive environment is essential for engaging students in a community service program, organization, or throughout a community. The environment includes everything around youth, including the culture, structures, and climate of the organizations they volunteer in and learn from. The vast majority of programs, organizations or communities that seek to engage youth as volunteers are adult-driven, which makes it vital for adults to work with youth to create these environments, rather than assume that they must do all the work.
  • Climate is the way people behave, their attitudes and feelings within a program, organization or throughout a community.
  • Structure includes the responsibilities, systems, authority and relations that allow a program, organization or community to perform its functions.
  • Culture includes the attitudes, values, beliefs, and typical patterns of relationships, behavior, and performance that characterize the program, organization, or community.
The following are essential elements in creating a safe and supportive environment for youth community service.


  • There is a general sentiment among the majority of adults and youth that engaging youth is a key to success.
  • Adults in believe that engaging youth in a variety of roles is important and possible.
  • Youth and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit, and it is made visible in relationships, practices, policies, and organizational culture.
  • Adults do not talk about youth in the third person or otherwise act as if youth are not present, when in fact they are.
  • Student volunteerism is validated and authorized through adults’ regular acknowledgement of their ability to improve programs, organizations and schools.


  • The voices, strengths, talents, actions and achievements of youth are continuously focused on in our program, organization or community, and are infused throughout all components of all activities.
  • Important activities focused on youth are done with youth, including research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy.
  • Before any activities in which they’re engaged youth have opportunities to learn about the issues, agendas, politics and processes they are going to participate in.
  • Programs and organizations have made youth part of plans, activities and evaluations, and young people have contributed throughout the process.
  • Student volunteers incorporated into ongoing, sustainable activities throughout the group, organization or community.
  • Student volunteers are encouraged and supported to invite other young people or adult allies to support them.
  • The voices of youth of all ages are engaged throughout the program, organization or community.


  • Youth feel comfortable asking for clarification of acronyms, definitions, concepts, or asking critical questions about assumptions, activities and other components.
  • Youth are never lectured about their behavior, attitudes, input or other perceptions adults may have of them. Instead, adults and youth are treated as equal partners, each with valuable contributions to make to the program, organization or community.
  • Issues addressed by student volunteers are not limited to so-called “youth issues”; instead, youth are seen and treated as members of the entire community. “Their” issues are the community’s issues, and the communities issues are theirs.

Let me know what you think! And for more information about support environments see the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit at http://www.freechild.org/YouthVoice.

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

Youth Volunteerism Links

Want to learn more about what children and youth are doing to make a different in the world around them? Check out the following websites!  Every program here is part of a broad international movement promoting youth volunteering, action, and empowerment.  
Child Friendly Cities (CFC) – A UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre initiative that focuses on youth involvement throughout communities. The website is a tool for exchanging information, sharing data and networking among communities around the world. Users can access information about the activities, objectives and methodologies of CFC projects, links with CFC partners and examples.  www.childfriendlycities.org
The Freechild Project – Seeks to connect young people to social change efforts around the world. Freechild highlights thousands of organizations, publications, websites, and resources from hundreds of topic areas focused on youth involvement. www.freechild.org

McCreary Center – Their youth participation and youth action initiatives provide a variety of resources. Located in McCreary, British Columbia, the Center features unique tools and more.  www.mcs.bc.ca/ya_base.htm
SoundOut – Promotes student voice in schools through an online portal that provides examples, research, publications, discussion forums, and organizations to students, educators, and others. www.soundout.org
TakingITGlobal – An online community made of more than 100,000 young people around the world. These youth collaborate on projects, express themselves, and participate in vibrant discussions about technology, involvement, and democracy online. www.takingitglobal.org
Teens as Community Builders – Highlights accomplishments of young people across the United States by telling stories of youth who are doing positive things to improve their communities. www.pps.org/tcb
Voices of Youth – A UNICEF project that encourages young people around the world to become positively involved in their communities. www.unicef.org/voy
What Kids Can Do – Features stories from students across the United States who are leading community and school change projects. www.whatkidscando.org
Youth Voice and Engagement – This comprehensive web portal is a collaboration of several partnerships and agencies in New York State, including the NYS Partnership for Children, the ACT for Youth Upstate Center of Excellence (UCE), and the ACT Downstate Center for Excellence. There are hundreds of publications, programs and other tools for Youth Voice practitioners. www.youthengagementandvoice.org

Find more links about youth volunteerism at http://www.freechild.org

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