Placing Community Work in the Center
Lessons from Volunteer Fairfax’s Community Conversation on Transformational Volunteerism
For many of us, our volunteer journeys begin from a highly personal place — maybe a one-time service project opened our eyes to the needs of our community or taking a service trip abroad inspired us to lend our time and skills in more impactful ways. From helping our neighbors to building meaningful relationships, there are multiple benefits to volunteering for both the community and volunteers.
At the same time, existing volunteer opportunities can often also feel like an “in and out” transaction. It is common to treat the act of volunteering as something fun and comfortable, during which volunteers advance their individual experience or interests and feel good about what they’ve done after.
This model is what Breauna Dorelus calls a needs-based program, in which volunteer leaders “recruit volunteers by pulling on their heartstrings and letting them know how much we need them.” By prioritizing volunteers’ feelings, we center volunteers as the hero when we tell our stories about volunteerism. This does a disservice to the communities that work with these volunteers, as well as to the volunteers themselves. How might we instead, as Breauna asks, reshape volunteerism so that we can recognize and honor each of our innate worths?
In Volunteer Fairfax’s recent Community Conversation, More than Just Volunteering: From Transaction to Community Transformation, keynote speaker Breauna Dorelus, Chief Cause Consultant of Connecting the Cause, shared an inspiring perspective on how we can practice more community-centered volunteerism and, in doing so, reimagine new ways of connection and shared care.
Moving towards true transformational change is by no means a linear path, but a good first step is to identify and acknowledge that most of us are currently “swimming in supremacy” when we “put the onus on fixing people instead of addressing systems.” Volunteerism, like any other tool, can be used for white supremacy, pity, othering, and self-interest. When we frame volunteerism as simply coming in to help solve issues, we risk manifesting paternalistic behaviors rooted in white saviorism, which can disempower the very community members we purport to help. It is important to continually recognize that inequitable systems create the issues that then push many of us to act.
“We have to get back to the why,” Breauna says. Why do we volunteer? Why are things happening the way that they are? When we co-dream as true partners with the community and when we center the community as the hero of transformation, we can be most effective in dismantling harmful systems together. “There has to be some boldness involved,” Breauna emphasizes. How might we change the biases, stereotypes, and assumptions that we may have about our communities through volunteering? How might we continue to change and transform in these ways that feel sustainable? How might volunteering give us the tools to be better advocates for the larger cause?
Interested in hearing more? Watch the full recording of this Community Conversation, which features keynote speaker Breauna Dorelus, Chief Cause Consultant of Connecting the Cause, along with a panel discussion including Briana Cleveland, Director of Volunteer Engagement at Martha’s Table, and Cheyenne Shelby-Petersen, Senior Manager of Strategic Relations at Chicago Cares.
Volunteer Fairfax mobilizes people and resources to meet regional community needs. If you want to learn more about and support this work, you can visit Volunteer Fairfax’s website, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and over email, and/or make a donation.