Saturday, September 17, 2005

Volunteering: Motivation and Reflection

I started volunteering with Streetside Stories in 1997 when the internship I had hoped would turn into job didn't, and the relationship I'd hoped would last forever, tanked.

Although I was still depressed about my failed relationship and lack of interesting work, when I went to help San Francisco public middle school students write autobiographical stories each morning, I felt happy and excited to get up and help out the next day.

Years later, as the Program Director for Streetside Stories, I would meet other people who wanted to volunteer who were in some kind of transition: they had moved, left their job, broken up with someone, started thinking about graduate school or dropped their last child off at college. I remember one man who, when I asked why he wanted to volunteer, explained that he was going through a divorce and he just wanted, "to be of help to someone else."

According to Imagine magazine's article, "Help Others--And Yourself," a number of US and British studies have shown that volunteering is good for your health and sense of well-being. My newly divorced volunteer started volunteering in the winter and when I saw him in the spring at one of Streetside's public events, he was smiling and laughing--and with a date.

If volunteering feels so good, why aren't more people volunteering?

A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that about 64.5 million people did volunteer work at least once from September 2003 to September 2004 and that the percentage of the U.S. population who volunteered was 28.8 percent. Using some of the Bureau's statistics, the Points of Light Foundation developed estimates of state volunteering rates in 2003. Utah was the state with the highest percentage of volunteers (49.9%) and Nevada was the lowest (21.3%). I was sad to see that my state, California, came in 44th with 25%.

But that may change with the recent outreach efforts for Katrina. As Arthur Blaustein states in a recent Mother Jones article, "The disaster in New Orleans makes at least one thing clear -- the importance of serving our communities and being there for one another."

But if a surge of volunteering should arise, especially to help the poor, mostly African Americans, in New Orleans, it serves all people interested in volunteering to examine their motives and the solutions being offered.

During a speech in 1968 to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Ivan Illich said:

The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and
should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican
peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages. . . .
Next to money and guns,the third largest North American export is the U.S.
idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer,
the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the
vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as
service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money
and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of
affluence and achievement. . . . Not only is there a gulf between what you have
and what others have which is much greater than the one existing between you and
the poor in your own country, but there is also a gulf between what you feel and
what the Mexican people feel that is incomparably greater.

Given that the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study mentioned earlier showed that in 2004 white people volunteered at a higher rate (30.5 percent) than did black people (20.8 percent) or other people of color, it behooves white people to think about their role as volunteers. For example, as plans are made to help the people of New Orleans and rebuild their city, will the agencies and organizations involved ask the poor, African American people of New Orleans what aid they need and how they want their city to be rebuilt or will it be determined only by wealthier white people?

I am still a HUGE proponent of volunteering, but just as New Orleans is an opportunity to rebuild the city it is also an opportunity to reflect on how volunteers serve. Particularly if you are a white volunteer, whenever you choose a volunteer opportunity, ask yourself:

Why does the problem I am hoping to help solve exist?
How do I think the work I am doing will help?
Are the solutions offered by the organization generated by the people being served and if not, who generated them?
What do I want to gain out of this volunteer experience?
If I am working with people of color (and I am a white person) am I aware of the privileges that I come to my volunteer work with?

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