Thoughts on My Volunteer Service

I was in a library sitting in front of a large window that overlooked a tiny creek. In my hands was a magazine article containing a withering critique of philanthropy, both the mega-foundation juggernauts and the mom and pop outfits. It was so withering I read it twice.

The author derives her criticism from the perceived hierarchical relationship most philanthropic organizations have over the people and causes their mission statements claim to address. They are above; everyone else is below. Giving comes with a price and a agenda. The recipient must accept the price and agenda. According to author of the criticism, this is naked power and paternalism at its worst. She presents many examples ranging from the Gates Foundation to Catholic Charities.

I disagreed with much of the critique because it seemed so far removed from my direct experience volunteering to help the homeless, although both organizations I volunteer for receive significant support from large regional foundations. You just can’t pass the hat to fund this kind of daily work.

Here are my notes, digression, comments and questions related to the critique.

Is my volunteering an act of altruism or advancing more power over vulnerable people? Is my service paternalistic? No and no. If you saw some of the people I served today, you would never say there is a power relationship between us because they were so far gone they don’t even know where they are or how to communicate on a basic level of understanding. They were starving and needed a meal. They were required to do anything to receive that meal except behave in a dining room. They also had the option of contacting the onsite caseworker if they needed further assistance and many utilized that option.

There is a difference between charity and mutual aid and the latter is preferred because the recipient of aid assumes a role in the assistance with an expectation of reciprocity, you know, like throwing your breakfast bowl, cup and spoon in the garbage before you leave. Is telling someone to do that a power trip?

What works better in working with the homeless—carrot or the stick? Strings or no strings? Can they come to the water on their own? Will they drink? What if they desire to remain homeless the rest of their lives and largely or somewhat dependent on others for survival.

Is the current assistance to the homeless helping to solve the problem, perpetuate it, or making it worse? That’s more than just a political question.

The foundation to all plans for solving the homeless crisis rests on the notion that most of these people will have to/want to work to afford the subsided housing that is coming on line soon. How solid is that foundation? Not very strong, I think. There is something going on in the minds of many Americans today with respect to working a job. It’s not being written about all that much.

Why am I volunteering? Because a national emergency is staring me in the face on a daily basis.

Do I have to justify my participation? No. I care. I want to act.

Should I think about my participation in terms of hierarchy and paternalism? No, that’s academic bullshit.

Am I volunteering merely to gather material for a book called the New American Diaspora? No. I often think my time would be better served volunteering at animal shelters. Here is about the most terrible sentence I will ever write: I sometimes believe American society is better served trying to save American dogs from destruction rather than saving American humans beings from destruction. There, I wrote it.

I believe my volunteering has value and it’s not in service to some dark agenda to exert power over the downtrodden. I sure don’t do it to feel good about myself. I have the time, the rightness of mind and body to serve, the economic means, so why not get out there? I certainly feel it has more worth than what I did in the classroom for all those years.

Besides, volunteering is like attending an unscripted one-act play every week where I watch every possible facet of American behavior on visceral display and it’s a thousand times more enlightening than watching a documentary on television. It is an education like no other one I have ever received.

Why do some people in power and the media use the pejorative phrase “do gooder” to mock those who want to help improve their society? Shouldn’t we all be doing good all the time?

The other morning was my first day of volunteering where I wanted to boot a client out. It didn’t feel good so I took a break and went out to the parking lot and watched dogs play in the park and felt better. Then I returned inside and got to work.