Making Meaningful Volunteer Opportunities

A few months back at a conference on Diversity and Leadership, participants got to talking about community service as it deals with multiculturalism and the funny way that biases play out among volunteers and the kinds of service projects they choose to do. We talked about students from primarily White institutions that would travel abroad to “3rd World” countries in Africa and Asia, but wouldn’t deal with people of color in the States. we asked ourselves “How can you be compelled to help starving people 8,000 miles away that you saw on a TV screen and yet have no sympathy for the homeless man you just walked over on your way to the club?” For many helping others is translated (not always consciously) into helping people that aren’t skilled enough to do it on their own- And only on the volunteer’s terms.

Often when organizing community service efforts for college/university students a few things happen that allow student and staff/faculty volunteers to distance themselves from the problems or issues they’re physically commissioned to fix:

1. They do community service in an area that they don’t normally travel to, or haven’t been to in the past. Many volunteers find themselves travelling to highly stigmatized areas where folks are classified as being underprivileged or deviant. It would do a lot for community relations if volunteers were actually familiarized with the people and spaces they want to desperately be a positive part of before they begin working in areas they haven’t ventured to previously.

2. They do the actual work without the community members who will be effected by it being present. (As in, I’m coming to do this for you, but I don’t neccessarily want to talk to you or spend time getting to know you. Isn’t giving my time enough? I’m such a good person.)

Example: A group of middle class White students travel to a working class predominately Black school on the weekend to clean up and paint. When local school boys passing by chastise the group, they for the life of them can’t understand why these children aren’t more eager to get their help.

3. There is often no brainstorming between volunteers and fixed community members as to what would be most beneficial to that given area.

Example 1: Group A wants to make dinner for group B because they think group B doesn’t have enough food. So they make ham sandwhiches and bring them to Group B only to find out that Group B doesn’t eat pork for cultural or spiritual reasons. If Group A would have asked B what they wanted, they may have been able to better serve their needs.

Example 2: (real example) Group Y travels to another country determined to build homes for a community (Group X) they see as poor. So they take their time and love and energy and build homes that they would like to live in for community X. But, community X refused to live in the homes because they found them strange and were quite fine living in the homes they had.

4. There is usually not very much discussion on why disparaties exist between neighboring communities. At a project a few weeks ago a student asked “How could they let it get this bad?” What was missing from the conversation was a dialogue surrounding the institutionalized contributors as to why certain things were not handled as well as where he was from.

When putting together community service efforts that we want students to learn and be inspired by, we need to make sure that they are internalizing their experiences and not just using their hours of service as a way to get credits or as a one time charity case. It is imperative for colleges and universities to utilize community service as a way of preparing students for a global and diverse working world that requires them to have skills working with people of various backgrounds (which may be very difficult for many of us to facilitate on very hegemonic campuses). When executed effectively community service is an opportunity to build better community relationships between institutions of higher education and the surrounding inhabitants, a way for students to better enhance usable skills, and a networking opportunity for students lacking real world experience.