EPISODE 1: NOT ALIENS, BUT ALLIES
Dr. Ksenija Fonovic
Dr. Ksenija Fonovic works with Centro di Servizio per il Volontariato ETS (CSV Lazio) on developing its studies, research and documentation center. She is a practitioner-researcher, an expert on the ILO Manual for the Measurement of Volunteer Work, and a contributor to many European civil society projects.
Listen to the podcast interview with the author;
NOT ALIENS, BUT ALLIES
There are several aspects that are making me increasingly uncomfortable when discussing the issue of youth volunteering, all of which have to do with standpoints that are taken for granted. These, I think in general, are not only wrong, but also not productive when looking for solutions to complex challenges. If we wish to remain agents of change for the times ahead of us, we must critically reconsider our ingrained standpoints.
The perils of sitting on our laurels
In saying ‘we’ I refer to the volunteering movement globally – associations, NGOs and their federations who have harnessed the energies and talents of people worldwide in the past thirty years for common good, solidarity and for advancing the realm of rights. In doing so, we have earned for the third sector a place under the sun of public consideration and, albeit partially, a place at the table of public policy making. Historically, it is a big victory which confers to citizens, potentially, a novel weight in the democratic order. But it is perilous to sit on our laurels and think of ourselves only as good-meaning and good-making. The structuring of civil society organisations has rendered us part and parcel of wider societal mechanisms, and therefore casual accomplices in the state of world affairs at present moment. We have been here, on the margins but inside, through all the evolutions and disasters of economic, political and environmental (dis)orders. In this I think lies the essential crux which needs to be tackled when thinking about youth and volunteering.
"But it is perilous to sit on our laurels and think of ourselves only as good-meaning and good-making. The structuring of civil society organisations has rendered us part and parcel of wider societal mechanisms, and therefore casual accomplices in the state of world affairs at present moment."
Why should young people volunteer?
It is not enough, and it is not right, to limit ourselves to dangling in front of youth colourful gadgets such as employability or socialising, which are at their best side products of volunteering, and urge them ‘Come volunteer with us!’. We must tell them why and we must tell them who is ‘us’. This presupposes a critical assessment of our roles and our goals. It calls on us to take a stance on the big issues: what we want to preserve, what we want to eliminate and what we want to mitigate. Being aware that global policy objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals may provide an umbrella as a theory of change – but that the real game is played on the local level, on specific challenges, in person-to-person relationships. What young people see is what we do, how we talk to people, and especially how we talk to people different than us, how we hold our head up or not in community relationships, how we give a hand or not when there is a problem or an injustice. Young people assess us by how we act – and whether or not we engage in interaction with perspectives other than our own.
"This calls for a re-thinking of our engrained presumption that we are the ones that possess the truth and the right direction, and the youth must come to us to help. No."
A generational new deal
This I think is the necessary premise for a ‘generational new deal’: voluntary organisations must speak up clearly about their political goals, act in coherence with their manifested approaches and listen with genuine interest to what young people want from this world. This calls for a re-thinking of our engrained presumption that we are the ones that possess the truth and the right direction, and the youth must come to us to help. No. Organisation-based volunteering and youth activism can be complementary resources – if, and only if, they are looking in the same direction.
To engage in this approach we must, again, open a series of question marks in our monolithic standpoint of what constitutes us and them. There is no polarisation and it is not a yin-yang situation. Just as us is not a clearly defined entity but a myriad of dynamic practices, youth is not a uniform category, but a book of pantones that can’t be reduced to age difference. Also, the age itself is a dynamic category. In order to think about the future of volunteering, we must allow for a much broader span of generations. The Millennials, who were really young when we started to debate the issue of youth and volunteering, are now parents to wholesomely digital pre-adolescents who must now enter our span of attention.
In this probably lies the major challenge for the volunteering movement in dealing with new cohorts of volunteers – to acknowledge, respect and accommodate diversities. Starting from recognising as false the myth that young people do not volunteer. They do. But not on our terms, in our organisations, for us. They do it and will do it – probably not to make the world a better place, as we had started thirty years ago, but to save the world. We should be their allies.
Watch the video interview below as the author unpacks the topic;