Sunday, November 09, 2008

Guest Post: On the Importance of Volunteering

Where Will You Be the Week After?
by Jessica Rosenberg, Hands On Twin Cities

This has been an historic election, no question. One part that gets me jazzed is how many people showed up, got organized, and worked for the public good. People volunteered.

As an AmeriCorps member at Hands On Twin Cities, a volunteer resource center, we’re in the business of getting people to volunteer. The most common reason people offer for not volunteering is that they are, say it with me now, Too Busy. I have my suspicions about what everyone is Too Busy with, and this election has proved my point. If people truly care about a cause, and see a clear path towards making a difference, they will make time to volunteer. Despite the passion that both Obama and McCain inspired, I don’t think either man by himself was the cause people rallied around. We can all easily identify what we were volunteering for: I care about education, I care about the economy, I care about the environment, I care about the war.

Now there is a lot of discussion on how to not lose that energy. Some talk as if the world is a blank slate of activism, and there are now all of these energized people wandering around with nowhere to go. This is not the case! The world, and the Twin Cities in particular, is brimming with incredible organizations working tirelessly for causes of justice, that engage volunteers in meaningful work. Whatever cause speaks to you, and however much time you have, there is something meaningful you can be doing.

As a young progressive person in this city of young progressive people, I also see a lot of energy around activism and organizing. Let’s be honest, you can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a vegan biker activist poet (I wouldn’t recommend it, either, they don’t enjoy that. Trust me.). I think our energy and creativity will always make young people integral parts of this work. But sometimes our desire for new and exciting activism keeps us from seeing the simpler, older, less-sexy-than-being-arrested-at-an-RNC-protest way of making change: good old fashioned volunteering, just like your momma does.

In addition to marching, blogging and lobbying, volunteering should be an integral part of the activist playbook, and I’ll tell you why:

Volunteering works. You care about an issue? There are organizations out there working on that issue, and they know how to use volunteers. Concerned about literacy? Minnesota Literacy Council could use you to teach kids how to read. Worried about homelessness? Bridging, Inc. has been helping low-income families transition into their own housing for over twenty years. These people know what they’re doing, and they could use your help doing it. Want to solve problems? Volunteer.

Volunteering connects you to community. All sorts of people care about the same issues you do, and volunteering will connect you to old folks, young folks, people who live far from you, work in different fields, maybe even vote differently, but still care about the same issue. Meanwhile, you get to connect with the community you’re serving. Volunteering breaks down the barriers of space, race, class, age, profession and all the other things that divide us. Which brings me to:

Volunteering teaches you tons. Think you have an innovative idea to fix a problem? Nothing will battle test your idea and strengthen your credibility better than volunteering. And as much as you know about a cause or issue, you will know more and understand it better if you volunteer. Already work in service? Volunteer for a different cause, see the connections and learn other innovative ways to get things done.

In addition to these fine activist reasons for volunteering, don’t forget that volunteering is good for your health, great for your resume, and a stellar way to meet people. Seriously, studies have shown that volunteers have lower stress levels, stronger immune systems, and actually live longer.

I don’t believe that people don’t care, I don’t believe that most of us are truly Too Busy, and I know many of us are currently filled with energy. What I see keeping people from volunteering is that we don’t always know how to make volunteering a sustainable part of our lives, and not just on MLK Day. Volunteering should be something woven into our lives: I went to work, I went to the gym, I volunteered, I went grocery shopping. The good news is, many people in the Twin Cities already do this. Minneapolis-St. Paul is ranked 1st among large U.S. cities in volunteer rates. The sad news here is that we only need a volunteer rate of 39.3%1 to achieve our first place standing. We can do better.

If another impediment to volunteering is not knowing how, it’s time to consult an expert. I can’t make the day longer, but I can tell you how and where to engage meaningfully in volunteer work. Hands On Twin Cities is all about connecting people to the organizations and positions that utilize their skills and labor to create the world they want to see, with whatever time they have to give. To this end, we’re hosting a Volunteer CafĂ© this Tuesday, November 11th, at Common Roots. With the election (almost) over, a lot of us suddenly have a lot of free time on our hands. So tell us the amount of time you spent volunteering for or worrying about the election, and the issue you care most about, and we’ll find you the perfect volunteer position.

November 4th was an historic day for, among other things, civic engagement and the power of people. Let’s not let it end with the election.

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