Here’s how to break out of their ill-conceived filter bubbles
Try leveraging demographics, historic civic engagement and an epidemic of social isolation
A few months ago, as I rushed out the door in frustration, signing up to volunteer was the furthest thing on my mind. Rather, I was on a mission to find a working printer (mine wasn’t cooperating).
I needed to print, notarize, and mail a document asap. I ran to my car, hoping my local library offered printing services (some branches in my area do, some don’t.
I grabbed my phone, thinking I should call to be sure.
“Yes, we have printers,” the staffer told me. “We are open until 9 p.m. tonight, and while you’re here, why don’t you fill out an application to volunteer for us?”
I laughed with surprise.
“Sure. Why not?”
About a month later, I was helping reorganize the graphic novel section a few hours a week as a volunteer at Duncan Library in Alexandria, Virginia. It is a truly remarkable community space straddling a love for books and digital content. Its program is packed with activities aimed at every member of the neighborhood — kids, immigrants, art lovers, movie buffs. Somehow it also serves as a quiet place to study along with a kind of information desk of county services for those in need.
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I have loved getting to know the staff, the program offerings, and the people who, heretofore, were my neighbors.
I experienced a rare feeling of community in a region — that is the D.C. metro area (and my hometown) — better known for transience, political comings, and goings and slavish kind of worship for status.
And, yet, despite the well-documented upside to volunteering, fewer and fewer of us are engaged in it. In fact, a University of Maryland study reports volunteerism in America has dropped to its lowest level in 15 years.
But consider the following thought experiment by ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott and co-author Myung J. Lee, who co-wrote a column entitled “Voting is up, volunteering is down: Midterm lessons for civic engagement” published in The Hill earlier this year.
“…the same civic impulses that drove people to the polls may also create the conditions for a renaissance in volunteerism. And Americans…shouldn’t wait another two years to take action. Can we replicate the turnout of last month’s elections to revitalize interest in volunteerism?”
The authors also offer a guideline for recruiting volunteers that fulfill crucial roles in towns, counties, and cities across America.
Community engagement — or the current lack thereof — is not only about getting the work done. It is about connection — as we know, humans are social animals — and a sense that our lives, with all the flaws, struggles and moments of hilarity and joy are meaningful.
Our epidemic of loneliness and disconnection is laid out in excruciating detail in Robert D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
The act of helping out gratis can help us ease this social ill. I can personally vouch for this elixir.