Volunteerism as a Way to Build Bridges

Over the past year at least, we’ve heard plenty of discourse about the divisions plaguing our country. While government policies such as the end of the DACA and TPS programs threaten to break up families by deporting people for whom the US is the only home they’ve known, families of US citizens are divided by politics and ideology, to the point that people’s differences impede connection and conversation. I’m sure that many readers of this blog found the holidays difficult.

To a certain extent this was true for me. My parents are staunch Trump supporters who believe that undocumented migrants deserve to be sent back to their home countries, who deny climate change, and who do not see any major structural injustices in our current economic system. I strongly disagree with them on those three points and many others.

But when I look a little more deeply, I still have much more in common with them than not. And perhaps the biggest irony is that my current political views stem directly from the way in which I was raised.

For as long as I can remember, civic engagement and volunteerism have been a major part of my mother’s life. Though shy and introverted by nature, she is truly a “joiner.” When I was a child, she was an active volunteer in my Catholic school and parish – monitoring lunches, working Bingo, and volunteering for the Respect Life Committee. As a preteen I accompanied her on the National Life Chain. Then, when I was a teenager, she got involved in Compeer, an organization that pairs volunteers up with people diagnosed with mental illness. I still remember waiting for four hours for her as she completed an in-depth interview that ultimately paired her up with someone who is to this day a dear friend. In fact, they have both nearly forgotten that they met through the organization.

My mother’s volunteer activities increased once I went away to college. She volunteered as a reader for the blind and a receptionist at a local nonprofit that houses homeless veterans while taking a paid position as a teacher’s aid in a day care facility. Then, she and my father decided to alleviate their empty nest syndrome by becoming host parents for an array of foreign exchange students from such different countries as France, Brazil, China and Pakistan.

This idea of volunteerism as important and worthwhile is probably one of the biggest impacts they’ve had on me, one that I began in childhood and have carried with me into adult life. And it is one that I would urge all of you to follow.

There are many reasons to be critical of volunteerism. One commonly heard argument is that it follows a charity model rather than a justice model – we feed the poor without asking why they are poor. Another criticism – made by those who accept the charity model as the best way forward – is that it is not as effective as other forms of charity, that it might be better to work harder and donate money to stop malaria in sub-Saharan Africa than to invest time into volunteering at your local hospital. A cynical – and unfortunately sometimes true – argument is that the warm glow one feels when volunteering can actually worsen the very situation we are trying to help; the would-be do-gooder enjoys a rush of positive emotions while remaining blissfully unaware of the damage they are doing (this is often the case with short-term mission trips or “voluntourism.”

But, while bearing these criticisms in mind, I would say that volunteering is one of the best things we can do to build strong communities, traverse ideological, religious, and cultural differences, and build bridges of empathy and understanding.

While living in Toronto from 2008 through 2015, I got superficially involved in an activist movement bent on exposing and criticizing the environmental damage and human rights abuses caused by Canadian mining companies abroad – particularly in the global South. I got more seriously involved with volunteering at a mental health hospital, where for five and a half years I co-facilitated a creative writing group for inpatients (some of them long-term), outpatients, and community members – often homeless – who were just looking for a diversion on a Wednesday night.

Every week we would gather, offer a topic or writing prompt, and see what people wrote. We tried to keep the environment as open and non-hierarchical as possible, breaking down distinctions between patients, volunteers, and one patient who eventually became a volunteer! We held readings and parties in the library, inviting outsiders to come in. For one year we ran a blog with writing from the group. For eight years we shared laughter, tears, struggles and joys through our stories; we discussed religion, politics, illness, life, death and love.

Over the years, many people said they appreciated the community that was formed. Sometimes, people who hadn’t picked up a pen in years – after an initial wariness and question of “You’re not going to check our spelling, right?” would write something beautiful, experiencing the joy that comes with telling a story. Some people with severe diagnoses who’d been in the hospital for years looked forward to the group as a change of pace in a monotonous day, a chance to unwind, laugh, and enjoy the company of others.

No, we weren’t “saving the world” in any sense. I will be the first to admit that volunteering is selfish at its core, and, having participated for as long as I did, I got a heck of a lot out of it. I wrote poems and essays that I went on to publish; I escaped the isolating ivory tower of grad school to feel part of a wider world; I encountered new perspectives and met people I probably never would have spoken to otherwise; I learned skills that I continue to use in my current work, every day. Most important, I made some wonderful friends who are very dear to me today. As it turned out, one of them was a worker – in corporate social responsibility – for a controversial Canadian mining company. Learning of her work, I was initially nervous. Would our discussions grow heated? Would we find it hard to get along? Instead, talking to her, I realized that – even in our attitudes toward mining and environmentalism – we had much more in common than not. And I most likely never would have encountered her had I not signed up to volunteer for a cause that was much less controversial, yet nevertheless still worthy.

If you are one of the , if recent developments in the political sphere are making you throw up your hands and cry out, “What can I do?” I will offer a simple proposal: get out into your community and volunteer. Pope Francis has said our Church must be a “field hospital” for those in need, and there is room for the talents and skills of all. On its own, volunteering is not enough. On its own, it probably won’t radically alter the social structures that so many of us want to see changed. But it is better than many of the alternatives – getting into long debates on social media, or simply retreating into private life. Give it a chance. You might be surprised, as I was, at what you learn and whom you encounter.

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