"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Volunteerism–Myth And Reality

America is a country of volunteers.  Almost 30 percent of us volunteered for a US non-profit agency in 2011 (The Business Journals 3.12). I was one of these legions, albeit years ago.  At prep school I tutored slower students from the town in French and Latin ; and at Yale I was a member of Dwight Hall, a social service agency which ran a variety of programs in New Haven.  I told stories to second graders in poor, black neighborhoods and tutored math students in area high schools.  In Bombay, I volunteered to teach basketball to kids in a nearby private school. 

In all this I don’t remember having what one corporate interviewer described as a ‘social service motivation’ – i.e., doing good – but got involved in these programs because I enjoyed being around children. The ivory towers of the Ivy League and its feeders were very confining, and spending time with ‘real’ people in ‘real’ communities gave me the contact with the more intimate and personal life that I missed. 

The schools in New Haven were in the ghetto,  and the children had unbelievable stories to tell during Show-and-Tell.   “My Mommy took a bottle upside my Daddy’s head and he didn’t get up for a long time”, said one.  “My Mommy turned on the gas and when my Daddy got close to the stove, she lit it and burnt his butt”, said another. It was sad, but funny.

I was reading French literature of the mid-19th century and la nostalgie de la boue, a desire to get back to the dirt, grime, and bare reality of the world after a life of poetry and fine arts, and my sophomoric fantasy was to experience a reality that I would never have to live. Perhaps more to the point, the children were goofy, uninhibited, silly, and giddy – far from the stuffed, taxidermy of Imbrie Buffum or Maynard Mack, my college professors.

After Yale I worked at St. _______School in Westchester County, a home/school for potentially delinquent children who had been referred by the Juvenile Justice Department of New York City.  These children lived at St. _____ and because they were not socialized enough to attend public school, were taught on campus.  Every summer, college students like me lived at the school, organized games, outings and events. This was in the Sixties, in the first days of civil rights, so no one in the administration of the school looked askance at 5 white Ivy League kids shepherding 100 black ones.  Like Dwight Hall at Yale, St. _____ gave me a chance to see what life was like beyond the wall and to enjoy the silliness of young children.  A lot of the spontaneity and joy had been beaten out of them from a shitty home life in the slums, but they were still children.

In short, my desire for la nostalgie de la boue, a slice of life was satisfied. My cruise on the surface of ghetto,slum, and dysfunction gave me perspective without pain.  I was neither transformed nor proud.  I simply liked what I did.

The children with whom I worked were, I think, also satisfied.  They could tell that I liked them, and liked being with them; and despite initial suspicions of the white boy from Connecticut, gave in and had a good time.  In short, my volunteerism was an expression of very precise and particular personal interests, none of which had anything to do with ‘helping’ or ‘caring’; but it had the result that organizers wished.  The kids were happy, learned French, math, and Latin. It was a perfect balance.

Which brings me to the enforced volunteerism of my own children’s day.  At neither private school which they attended was there any real sense of the purpose of volunteering.  Was it for the benefit of the students, i.e. to teach them empathy, solicitude, and charity? Was it for the benefit of the slum communities in which the students were to work? Was ‘real’ volunteering only working with black, poor communities; or was teaching a drawing class at an after-school class for wealthy white kids OK?  What was the definition of community?  Was it someone else’s community, such as the neighborhoods of Southeast Washington where my children were bussed to pick up someone else’s trash, needles, and used condoms? Or was it their community – the libraries, hospitals, and convalescent homes of well-to-do Washington?

Because of this lack of clarity of purpose and the enforced, obligatory nature of the volunteer program, most students emerged from the experience more hardened in their opinions about those less fortunate than ever.  I offered to go with the students of my son’s school to ‘help the community’ clean up the area around a church located in a poor area of Northwest DC.  However there were no members of the congregation there to pitch in, so the little white kids picked up cigarette butts, candy wrappers, soda cans, dreck and shit that church-goers had stepped over.  What kind of a message was that?  

The next year, my son decided that he would volunteer for something more suited to his interests and abilities and taught advanced drawing to an after-school program at a private art and dancing school.  He had found the school, elicited an interest from the director, and proposed the work to the head of the volunteer program at his school.  “No”, said the Director.  “That is not real volunteering”; by which he meant that the only way to fulfill your school and moral obligation was to suffer in the course of doing good.  Needless to say my son never did any volunteering ever again. 

Many of the 30 percent who volunteer do it for their church or some other familiar, close-in social group; and relatively few go out of bounds; but in so doing they represent the best of volunteerism.  My mother’s favorite adage was “Charity begins at home” and in these less Depression-straitened times it can be expanded to include one’s own crowd.  My neighbor, for example, always picks up the paper from our next door neighbor who is old and infirm and is the first to shovel his driveway when it snows.  She always refused payment on behalf of her son for chores he did for us.  “He’s your neighbor”, she said. 

For many years my wife volunteered at the Vassar Book Sale in Washington, a grand affair filling the halls of the Building Museum with used books collected by alumnae, women who also sorted, selected, and worked the register.  The book sale always generated revenue for the school which in turn used it for scholarships.  The ladies volunteered because of allegiance to Vassar, an old, formerly Ivy League WASP redoubt in the 30s and 40s when they went there.  Vassar didn’t really need the relatively small amount of money generated; and the sale was more for the ladies who did something for their alma mater and got to shmooze with Washingtonians not unlike them who loved books.

The point is, volunteerism need not – should not – be a piece of someone’s social service agenda.  My mother’s other adage was “God helps those who help themselves”; and hard love and the withdrawal of social service programs, well-meaning volunteers, and social reformers will do more for inciting people to change their own lives than any external assistance.

Individualism if interpreted as the acceptance of personal responsibility is a good thing; and is the only way for dysfunctional communities – the ones getting volunteer help alongside public assistance – to give up the culture of entitlement and move on, up, and out.  Volunteerism can prolong the misery of the dysfunction, delay the onset of internal, homegrown activism.

Obama’s calls for diluting individualism with a dose of collectivism are somewhat discordant.  The world has changed since the day of his volunteer activism and community organization in Chicago.  Online petitions clog the web and produce results as do online contributions to organizations promoting environmentalism, elder care, or education.  Tens of millions of dollars were contributed by American conservatives to defeat Obama in an almost successful attempt to extirpate the enemy – i.e. volunteerism at its most active and effective.  Not your grandfather’s volunteerism to be sure, but volunteerism nonetheless. 

In fact, this social networking, online activism is paired with market forces.  Marketing experts, armed with big data and sophisticated algorithms group atomized individuals virtually and create large volunteer groups.  Viral commercial marketing does the same thing, and engages consumers into promoters.  When you ‘Like’ a product, place, or service on Facebook, you have volunteered your services to the companies behind them.

So, both Obama’s Inaugural and the now institutionalized MLK Day of Community Service are quaint, old-fashioned, well-meaning, but way off-target in this dynamic, changing, electric world of 2013

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