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September 17, 2004

volunteering versus politics?

On Monday evening, I’ll be speaking to a bunch of young volunteers who serve through Greater DC Cares, a large “coordinator of volunteerism and corporate philanthropy” in our area. I think I’ll start by pointing out that young Americans often view volunteering as a substitute for political engagement. Voting by people under the age of 25 has declined by one third since 1972, although turnout by older people has not fallen in that period. Yet young people have become more likely to volunteer over the last 15 years. In a 2002 survey, CIRCLE’s colleagues found that young people were just as likely as older people to be heavily involved in “civic” activities, such as volunteering, working on local problems, and belonging to groups. However, they were considerably less likely to be involved with electoral politics. When Campus Compact hosted a summit of campus leaders in 2001, many said that they deliberately rejected formal politics—for reasons of principle—and preferred helping people face-to-face.

There are two influential criticisms of volunteerism. One comes from the left: it says that volunteering is at best a Band-Aid, a palliative. At worst, it preserves the status quo. For example, if some people must get their food from a soup kitchen, that’s a sign of deep social injustice. If the food is served by smiling, kind, concerned people of wealth and privilege, then the recipients may “learn” not to demand radical change, and the servers may convince themselves that they are doing all that they can.

The second critique is less ideological, but radical in a different way. Conventional volunteering doesn’t take the volunteer very seriously as a citizen, capable of changing the world and creating public goods. In the 2002 survey I mentioned before, only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a “social or political problem.” In a qualitative study of Minnesota citizens completed in 2000, respondents said that volunteering often consigned them “to positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lacke[ed] the capacity to work on big issues that impact the community.” People want to do demanding, creative, responsible, serious forms of public service. Volunteering rarely meets that standard.

If volunteering is often mediocre and superficial, then one response is to encourage young people to participate in conventional politics. If idealistic people and young people don’t vote, don’t lobby, don’t join parties, and don’t debate elections and legislation, then policy will be set by powerful and often cynical professionals.

The students convened by Campus Compact reject this option (pdf, p. 11):

For the most part, we are frustrated with conventional politics, viewing it as inaccessible. [However,] while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged. In fact, what many perceive as disengagement may actually be a conscious choice; for example, a few of us … actively avoided voting, not wanting to participate in what some of us view as a deeply flawed electoral process. … While we still hope to be able to participate in our political system effectively through traditional means, service is a viable and preferable (if not superior) alternative at this time.

They cite “guerilla theater, music, coffee houses, poetry, and alternative newspapers” as non-traditional forms of engagement that they embrace. As they note, these forms of politics tend to explore and express identity, more than they analyze and change policy.

Part of me wants to push back and say that formal politics is no worse—no more corrupt or inaccessible—than it was in previous generations. There’s more transparency (because of disclosure laws and an aggressive media), and therefore we read more scandalous news every day; but the reality is probably better. Journalists constantly tell us that politicians are only concerned about re-election, but there is little evidence of that, and it mainly reflects reporters’ inability to follow real policy debates. Shunning politics means surrendering to the cynicism of the mass media. It’s a cop-out. If political institutions really are “antiquated and irrelevant to [our] concerns for social justice” (as the student leaders say), then we need to reform those institutions through political action.

But part of me wants to embrace the possibilities of an alternative politics, rooted in identities and communities, voluntary rather than institutionalized (see the Campus Compact pdf, p. 28), and built from the ground-up on the basis of face-to-face relationships.

When I meet the group of young volunteers on Monday, I’ll present them with three simplified choices and let them develop their own synthesis:

1. Volunteering (as we normally do it) is valuable and rewarding and should be our focus.
2. Volunteering is problematic on its own, but it can and should be a bridge to formal political participation (voting, lobbying, protest)
3. Volunteering is problematic on its own, but it can be connected to new styles of politics that are alternatives to conventional participation.

Posted by peterlevine at September 17, 2004 11:08 AM


Is that maybe because the two-party system has begun to seem dirty and futile? Thus the third-party attraction of Howard Dean and the tremendous enthusiasm of high school and college age kids involved (but not excluding us olds and greys)-- and the punch-in-the-tummy let-down when Dean lost.

On the other hand, here's a dedicated college sophomore who was part of the Dean campaign and who continues to be active: http://www.musselmanforamerica.com/

I'm looking forward to reading the responses to your point #3.

Posted by: Bean at September 17, 2004 03:36 PM

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