Giving Your Time And What You Might Get Back

This tale is about doing volunteer work, but I would like to start off with a little qualification. There are plenty of people in this world, who have neither the means nor the opportunity to do volunteer work. I am not some saint who gives her few spare hours, when she’s working 60 hours a week, to lug wood at a Habitat for Humanity site. Those are amazing people, and I admire them, but I know how intimidating it can be to hear from those individuals and feel just a little judged for not being like them. But that is not me, and this is not one of those articles.

The fact that I am struggling to find consistent work means I have more free time, and if I’m not making money with that time anyway, I might as well find something else useful to do with it. That’s my situation, and it’s one I hope most people don’t have to deal with. But nothing in this article is intended to guilt, goad or shame people into doing volunteer work. It’s simply a discussion about my experiences, my motivations and whether those experiences and motivations are fully informed or may indicate some latent (or more blatant) privilege.

My first volunteer job was demonstrative of what I like to call my “teacher’s pet syndrome.” I’ve always broken bell curves, been the one to “get it” first and help the other students, in some cases I’ve also ended up teaching my teachers. Yes, I have an above average intelligence, but these factors were more related to how well I test, my verbal acuity and ability to learn and then subsequently teach new ideas, and my natural aptitude for certain kinds of technology. If only that shit translated into my being able to learn to code, I’d be swimming in dough.

When I was in high school, I became involved in Junior Achievement. I did the after school meetings, I made the pencil holders, sold them in malls, the whole nine yards. And I was pretty good at it, winning some kind of best sales award that I can’t remember the details of, which allowed me to go to the University of Indiana for a big JA event one year. At some point during my “JA career” I was told that we could volunteer to teach Business Basics to 5th and 6th graders at local schools. I thought it was a great idea. I liked talking to kids, it got me out of classes I was bored to tears of, and I got a snazzy little jr. briefcase and a name badge. One semester I taught one class. The next semester I taught 6 classes. I had to coordinate my teaching schedule with the dean’s office, so I didn’t have to wait forever for my passes to leave school and risk being late to my ‘teaching jobs’.

Unfortunately a year later, I literally fell in with a bad crowd and lost my damned mind. On some level I think it was burn out. I was also in flag corp and helping a younger friend, who had learning disabilities, with her homework every night. I was overdoing it and being such a ‘good girl’, that eventually I had a Sandy-goes-leather-and-spandex moment, ala Grease. And yes, I literally wore — and rocked, I’ll have you know — leather, and spandex.

I didn’t do much significant volunteer work for many years after that. I was always working, taking care of my son, dealing with my ex’s litigious tirades, dealing with our household — my first period of unemployment as an adult coincided with our house burning down, which was fortunate really, because that took a lot of work and years to fully recover from.

When I got laid off from my last W-2 job, in 2009, I got lucky that the freelance work I needed fell into my lap, but I was already feeling stuck in my house after a few weeks. So when I found out they were looking for volunteers for the recently established Pride Fest in our area, I volunteered to help out. It was kind of disorganized, because it was such a new event, but it felt good to be useful and not sitting in front of my computer all day. I did some social media work, took event booklets and posters to local establishments to be displayed, and ended up being the person who ran the kid’s area at the actual festival.

What I didn’t plan for or think about rationally, was the heat. It was bad enough, when we were standing on the bridge, stretching a pride banner from one side of the river to the other. But trying to wrangle kids in 100 heat indexes is a bad idea, for someone with my fibromyalgia and tendency toward heat exhaustion. This experience put me off of volunteering for a while.

The idea of doing volunteer work recently resurged for me, mostly out of job hunting. On LinkedIn I get job posting emails from Volunteer Match, and some of them looked interesting, plus I thought they might look good on my resume. So I joined the site. But a lot of what came up just wasn’t in my wheelhouse or again was outside of my physical capabilities. Through VM I’ve started doing some things here and there, but the two volunteer jobs I’ve taken recently are what specifically prompted the conversation, that led to this article.

Last month I started spending a couple of hours a week, doing reminder calls for donor’s appointments at a blood center. When I first emailed about doing the work, I really didn’t think much of it, except that it would be a good mix of actually talking to people and just leaving messages, and it was work my body could tolerate. But the reaction of the coordinators I work with was kind of surprising. They were so amazingly grateful for my presence, for my time, for my skills. For someone who has struggled mightily lately, with depression, anxiety and lack of income that makes me feel like a worthless drain on my family, that little bit of attention was really nice.

Last week, a job popped up on VM that involved basically folding t-shirts for a few weeks at the local Girl Scouts office. The way the job was worded, I wasn’t sure if most of the work could be done sitting down or if a lot of standing was required. Right now, being on my feet for more than 30 minutes straight is quite difficult to manage, and involves a fair amount of pain. So I sent an email and explained my situation, asking for details on whether the task would involve a lot of standing. I got an email the next day, from their volunteer coordinator, asking to schedule a time when we could talk on the phone. We spoke the next day, and once again I had the sensation that I was a white knight, saving the day. It was so strange to me. I know there are people who do volunteer work, surely such simple and small jobs are easily filled for these groups. But I guess that’s not the case. Maybe, on some level, it’s the short/simple duration that is the problem. The hard-core volunteer folks are spending whole days building houses, they don’t take little gigs like this. But for me, it’s a perfect fit.

We talked for a while, established that I could totally do the work sitting down most of the time and could be set up in the conference room to manage it all in whatever method worked best for me. But when I explained to the volunteer coordinator that I work from home, and I’ve taken to doing small volunteer jobs as a good excuse to get out of the house and interact with people, she was instantly coming up with other things that I could do when the t-shirts were done, if I was interested; admin work, data entry, some web design work. So what was going to be a few weeks of volunteering will probably turn into a long-running gig. And again, I get this real sensation not just that I’m going to be useful, but kind of a god-send, if you’ll forgive the non-secular term. And again, it’s really boosted how I feel mentally and physically.

So I was posting these thoughts on Twitter.

It started off just as a discussion of the self-care that could be found, in being a volunteer, because they are so grateful for the help that it makes you feel like a worthy and useful person again. There were a few likes/RT’s, and obviously people embraced the sentiment. Though there came a moment, where I wondered aloud, would they be so welcoming and embracing if they knew who I am, what I do, what I aspired to, what matters to me, etc.

But the next day, one person’s quoted reply was less positive, and at first I was confused by the response.

But after a little discussion back and forth and trying to undersatnd the points she was making, what I got was confirmation that not all volunteer experiences match my own, and that who you are, and your inherent privilege can inform how you are treated when you volunteer .

Through this discussion I realized that my little quandary, about whether how I’m treated as a volunteer might change if I lost the privilege of anonymity that I’m currently under, was really just scratching the surface. My privilege was giving the experience a rosier hue, that is not the lens everyone else is seeing through.

For example, I am a white cis-het woman who at least has the means to drive across town to access these locations and to dress business-casual as the environments require — even if financially I’ve rarely been above upper-lower class in my life. The volunteer coordinators I’ve dealt with, at the blood bank, are (at last by outward appearances) also white, cis-sexual women, who would seem to be of middle-class persuasion. And a little Googling indicates that most of the volunteers at the local Girl Scouts chapters would also appear to be white, middle-class cis-women — including the woman I spoke to. Which begs the question…

What if I were black? What if I were Latino or Hispanic? What if I were a transgender man or woman, who wasn’t ‘passing’? What if instead of just desiring to produce adult films, I had already done so, or ‘worse’ if I’d performed in some? What if the reason I worked from home, and had time to volunteer, is because I was a cam girl, or I had moved forward with my plans, last year, to become a phone sex operator? What if I had a disability or non-typical physicality that was more disturbing for some people, like Tourettes or Parkinsons? What if I wasn’t just a sex worker advocate, but a former or current sex worker, with a criminal record for solicitation? What if, instead of just being an outspoken proponent of drug decriminalization, I had a drug conviction on my record?

I am not assuming any of the people I’ve dealt with in my volunteer work would have a problem with any of that, and would necessarily treat me any differently for any of those reasons. But if I’m wondering whether being open about my own life would impact how they treat me, it would be foolish and naive to assume that people who are part of these marginalized groups always get the same warm reception to their volunteer efforts that I’ve had. And it would be highly unlikely that biases which make it harder for people to get paying jobs have no effect on how they are treated when they do volunteer work.

And so, I have decided that just doing this volunteer work isn't enough. If I’m going to embrace this activity as a way to improve my mental health, and advocate for others in my situation doing volunteer work, I have to work to understand how intersectionality and biases effect those outcomes and experiences. I’m not sure yet how best to accomplish that. A survey or poll seems feasible, but I don’t just want pre-formulated answers which can end-up confirming my biases by their lack of context. I want to hear people’s stories, and (with their permissions of course) share them. I don’t just want to encourage people to do volunteer work, but to encourage organizations to put aside any biases they have and treat their volunteers with the same levels of respect and appreciation, regardless of their background, profession, sexual identity, race/ethnicity, orientation, disability, etc.

For starters, if you have a story of doing volunteer work that you’d like to share, regardless of whether it was a positive or negative experience, please email me at kat @ femmeappeal.me.

And thanks to @EdenAlexander_, for reminding me that what makes me feel more useful to the world, is remembering that my experiences are not universal, and its only through vigilant intersectionality that we can understand how our lived-experiences compare to the experiences of others.