When I read Robert's post, I realized that the word "volunteer" has become somewhat of a trigger for me. Here's why:
- I think of volunteering as optional - as something that extra-nice people do with time that other people use for work or amusement or just goofing off, or at a time in their life when their lifetime to-do list has a lot of checks.
- I think of volunteering as a "should" and associate it with some degree of guilt that I'm not volunteering enough or I'm not willing to volunteer whenever I'm asked or that I have not enjoyed some volunteering that I have done.
- I think of the hidden meaning behind the following phrases:
I'm only a volunteer.
She's only a volunteer.
He's only a volunteer.
We're only volunteers.
They're just volunteers.
For this reason, I flinch a bit when I hear people working in their own neighborhoods or playing active citizen roles in their own communities described as volunteers.
When I was most active in my neighborhood - working endless hours without pay - there was a lot of "self" there. It was my life, my children, my house, my street, my neighbors, and my neighborhood that was at stake. Whether or not I was actively involved, I went to sleep and woke up in the same place each day - a place that could get better, stay the same, or decline. There were direct consequences for me if I spent my day on the couch with the soaps rather than at a City Council meeting.
In the years that I've been associated with grassroots grantmaking, I've met hundreds of people just like me who were "volunteering" in their own neighborhoods.
And, I've seen others who could also be described as "volunteers" in these same neighborhoods - the group from the bank who came out to help with a Saturday clean-up, the people from the social service agency who tutored kids from the local school, the group from a church who volunteered to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. With no disrespect to anyone who volunteers, I want to suggest that the volunteering that is done by neighborhood residents is not the same thing as the volunteering that is done by others who go home to other neighborhoods or set of circumstances - people who have a real "opt-in/opt-out" choice when it comes to dealing with that specific set of challenges.
I remember a dinner conversation last summer about the word "citizen" - about how unfortunate it is that we are reluctant to use the word "citizen" now because of its association with legal status and the immigration debate. And, about how uniquely "citizen" describes what is required of us to make our communities work - our day to day unpaid jobs in our communities.
To me, "citizen" is the word that describes my role in my neighborhood. I was involved because it was my responsibility to be involved and because there were consequences if I didn't fulfill these responsibilities. I was not being selfless; I was working from self-interest. And I only described myself as "just a volunteer" when the "getting paid" people in the picture were trying to unfairly unload their work on me in the cloak of citizen participation.
My hunch is that others feel this difference too. And my wish is that we had a different set of words we could use when we're tempted to describe all work-without-pay as volunteering. An expanded vocabulary would help those of us involved in grassroots grantmaking immensely - enabling us to better communicate what we mean when we say we are supporting residents in their active citizenship roles. And, helping us value and validate this type of "work-without-pay".
An expanded vocabulary might also be useful to Robert Thalhimer and others who want to engage young people in civic engagement - making it easier for us to let young people know that it's okay for self-interest to enter the picture. That working from self-interest may be where they find the passion that propels them forward. That this type of "volunteering" may even be noble. That it's expected, not a choice.
What do you think? Is there indeed a difference between "citizen-ing" and "volunteering"?