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Making Volunteers

Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End

Nina Eliasoph
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Making Volunteers
    Book Description:

    Volunteering improves inner character, builds community, cures poverty, and prevents crime. We've all heard this kind of empowerment talk from nonprofit and government-sponsored civic programs. But what do these programs really accomplish? InMaking Volunteers, Nina Eliasoph offers an in-depth, humorous, wrenching, and at times uplifting look inside youth and adult civic programs. She reveals an urgent need for policy reforms in order to improve these organizations and shows that while volunteers learn important lessons, they are not always the lessons that empowerment programs aim to teach.

    With short-term funding and a dizzy mix of mandates from multiple sponsors, community programs develop a complex web of intimacy, governance, and civic life. Eliasoph describes the at-risk youth served by such programs, the college-bound volunteers who hope to feel selfless inspiration and plump up their resumés, and what happens when the two groups are expected to bond instantly through short-term projects. She looks at adult "plug-in" volunteers who, working in after-school programs and limited by time, hope to become like beloved aunties to youth. Eliasoph indicates that adult volunteers can provide grassroots support but they can also undermine the family-like warmth created by paid organizers. Exploring contradictions between the democratic rhetoric of empowerment programs and the bureaucratic hurdles that volunteers learn to navigate, the book demonstrates that empowerment projects work best with less precarious funding, more careful planning, and mandatory training, reflection, and long-term commitments from volunteers.

    Based on participant research inside civic and community organizations,Making Volunteersillustrates what these programs can and cannot achieve, and how to make them more effective.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3882-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Empower Yourself!
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    Clarion calls to “serve your community” come at us from every direction lately. From the heights of national government to the lowly offices of nonprofits,¹ from universities to elementary schools, from breakfast cereal companies to toilet paper companies,² we hear summons to volunteer, to participate, to build grassroots, multicultural community, and to become empowered. In everyday practice, these alluring ideas materialize in surprising ways, sometimes with consequences that are nearly the opposite of anyone’s intentions.

    Youth programs are ideal places to witness those transformations. A program like Community House,³ for example, is a free after-school and summer program for low-income,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 How to Learn Something in an Empowerment Project
    (pp. 1-14)

    Community House beautifully illustrates Empowerment Projects’ complex tangle of crisscrossed sponsorships and crisscrossed missions. It is a very successful Empowerment Project, coming close to fulfilling all the missions at once. Most of its funds come from the government, from nonprofit organizations, and from private donations. A small amount of money comes from its many fundraisers, which involve selling burrito or lasagna dinners, used clothes, old stuffed animals with dirty fur, and rumpled, second-hand books. So, to survive, the program has to act a bit like a state agency, a bit like a nonprofit, a bit like a charity, and a...

  6. PART ONE: Cultivating Open Civic Equality

    • CHAPTER 2 Participating under Unequal Auspices
      (pp. 17-47)

      Interviewing some youth volunteers who were helping out at a local event, a reporter asks a question that was intended to give a boy a chance to display his generous volunteer spirit:

      Reporter: Why are you here today?

      Wispy black boy, maybe fourteen years old: I’m involved instead of being out on the streets or instead of taking drugs or doing something illegal.

      The wispy boy’s response was not a mistake. For poor and minority youth, finding an implicit answer to the question, “Why am I in this group?” was easy: I am slated to do poorly in school and...

    • CHAPTER 3 “The Spirit that Moves Inside You”: Puzzles of Using Volunteering to Cure the Volunteer’s Problems
      (pp. 48-54)

      A favorite speaker at Snowy Prairie’s volunteer events was a Jamaican musician, a born-again Christian, Ezeky’el. At one event, his assignment was to describe the inspiration for volunteering and tie it to the day’s theme of “leadership.” Pacing across the school auditorium’s stage, building up a sweat, tossing his clean dreadlocks, he said:

      Leadership. That’s what they want me to talk about. It means taking risks, joyandpain, risking getting lost. You have to know what it is to be lost. How many of you have been lost?

      (enthusiastic shouting from the audience, as if at a prayer revival...

    • CHAPTER 4 Temporal Leapfrog: Puzzles of Timing
      (pp. 55-86)

      Rather than drawing on any experts’ distant, abstract knowledge from the outside, organizers hoped that volunteers themselves would find wisdom by drawing on the “inner ocean,” the deep, still place within, their hidden source of insight. Organizers called it “drawing on strengths.” They hoped that anyone who glimpsed this now-hidden place would easily and quickly recognize it as desirable and good, and would be able to use the inspiration to make change in their communities and in themselves.

      This posed puzzles for timing activities in Empowerment Projects. First, the organizations needed money, and grant applications often had to be completed...

    • CHAPTER 5 Democracy Minus Disagreement, Civic Skills Minus Politics, Blank “Reflections”
      (pp. 87-114)

      In snowy prairie, a handful of organizers drew their boundless energy from the hope of connecting volunteering and politics, of encouraging youth volunteers to care about “the big picture,” as these organizers often put it. However, many missions converged to prevent them from building this bridge between civic engagement and the bigger political picture. The result was that Empowerment Projects conducted projects about which any humane person would agree: pick up litter, gather food for the hungry, mittens for the cold—projects that were so indisputably good, organizers called them “no-brainers.”

      Paradoxically, this quest for easy, hands-on inspiration could easily...

  7. PART TWO: Cultivating Intimate Comfort and Safety

    • CHAPTER 6 Harmless and Destructive Plug-in Volunteers
      (pp. 117-145)

      Adult volunteers joined Empowerment Projects hoping to have an inspiring, emotionally and morally transformative and fulfilling experience. Organizers and adult volunteers alike said that the volunteers should try to become “like beloved aunties” to the young people. The volunteers came to the after-school programs earnestly hoping to help, but they had only one or two hours per week to spare, usually only for a few months at a stretch.¹ Drawing inspiration from the idea that people are all the same underneath it all, adult volunteers had faith that they could become intimate quickly. In practice, everyone could not be so...

    • CHAPTER 7 Paid Organizers Creating Temporally Finite, Intimate, Family-like Attachments
      (pp. 146-151)

      In the twelve-week course for organizers, the teacher gave many rousing speeches about the dedication that youth work demands. Here, he came to a typical climax:

      Youth work is not just about coordinating resources for youth, or keeping youth occupied, but about our relationships with them. You as a youth worker are like an instrument for the youth. You’re presenting yourself as awhole person.

      Other times, he told them, “Give of yourself 100 percent.” This short chapter will investigate the puzzles involved in creating this kind of attachment to youth, while also cultivating all the other goods of an...

    • CHAPTER 8 Publicly Questioning Need: Food, Safety, and Comfort
      (pp. 152-164)

      Privately deciphering what to count as a “need” is often puzzling: Do I need that piece of cake? Am I even hungry at all? Do I need that boyfriend? However confusing it is for an individual engaged in solitary introspection to distinguish between needs and wants, participation in an Empowerment Project amplifies the difficulty. In these projects, comfort, intimacy, and safety are exposed to multiple audiences’ gazes—funders, parents, organizers, plug-in volunteers, participants, and others. The desires have to make sense to many audiences. Painted into a corner, working fast, pleasing many onlookers at once, and proving their worthiness in...

    • CHAPTER 9 Drawing on Shared Experience in a Divided Society: Getting People Out of Their “Clumps”
      (pp. 165-180)

      Miriam [an organizer, at a lunchtime meeting of about thirty organizers and officials, discussing a plan to distribute a monthly calendar of events for youth]: The goal is to create a community so they can get to know each other. I know in our work [beckoning to her co-worker], we’ve spent a lot of time trying to get five communities together and ended up with five differentclumps—kids from each community sticking together and not getting to know each other. It’s taken time for us to realize that we have to structure itvery intentionallyto get them out...

  8. PART THREE: Celebrating Our Diverse, Multicultural Community

    • CHAPTER 10 “Getting Out of Your Box” versus “Preserving a Culture”: Two Opposed Ways of “Appreciating Cultural Diversity”
      (pp. 183-189)

      The call to “celebrate cultural diversity” sounded different to different ears: For many adults and teens (especially white, native-English-speaking, non-poor, from a generally Christian upbringing), it was a call to be tolerant, curious, and brave, to mix with others, not “stay in your box.” It was, above all, an invitation to discover that thereareother cultures. Organizers at a lunchtime meeting of organizers were discussing diversity:

      Erin, the Regional YEP organizer for the year, was very excited about starting groups and classes about “ethnic diversity.” They [the teens]wantto learn.

      Rob Strauss, county director of youth programs: We...

    • CHAPTER 11 Tell Us about Your Culture: What Participants Count as “Culture”
      (pp. 190-205)

      How did the approach that celebrated “breaking out of boxes” emerge as the usual practical meaning of “celebrating diversity”? To grasp this “how,” we have to observe how naming something “diversity” worked in everyday conversations in Empowerment Projects. At each step in this naming process, puzzles arose, resulting in uncertainty about whether or not anyone could countanythingas “diversity” or “culture.” This chapter focuses on face-to-face conversational gambits—moves people made to categorize things as “cultural diversity.”

      Ican call myownhabit a sign of my “cultural diversity” to honor it or to bid you to refrain from...

    • CHAPTER 12 Celebrating . . . Empowerment Projects!
      (pp. 206-230)

      “Come celebrate our diverse, multicultural community!” Flyers advertising big public events in Snowy Prairie almost always included a line like that, and Empowerment Projects sponsored most of them. How could people publicly celebrate diversity if they could not describe the cultures they were celebrating, could not celebrate disturbing or puzzling differences, and frowned upon making distinctions between people anyway? Whatdidthese events celebrate?

      In the dusty shade of a giant circus tent, about two dozen groups that sponsored Snowy Prairie’s Juneteenth¹ celebration this year are distributing pamphlets, selling knick-knacks, and talking to the seventy or so passers-by under the...

  9. CONCLUSION: Finding Patterns in the “Open and Undefined” Organization: Gray Flannel Man Is Mostly Dead
    (pp. 231-258)

    Empowerment Talk was once a radical, potentially liberating constellation of ideas. Its once-radical exhortations have now become mandatory in many organizations. As a story that organizations tell about “what we do and why it is good,” Empowerment Talk is unusual: it is a moral story that claims not to be one. Empowerment Project organizers insist that everything is “open and undefined, and up to you to decide whatever,” that nobody is limited by roles or organizations or social differences, and that all missions can quickly and easily blend. We can easily dispense with this utopian ideal of limitless potential—an...

  10. APPENDIX 1: On Justification
    (pp. 259-260)
  11. APPENDIX 2: Methods of Taking Field Notes and Making Them Tell a Story
    (pp. 261-264)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 265-280)
  13. References
    (pp. 281-302)
  14. Index
    (pp. 303-308)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 309-310)