Nov 232011

Demos published a report last Friday called A Place for Pride. It examines what makes people proud to be British, and reached an inspiring conclusion: community engagement and volunteering.

‘When you ask about what’s best about being British I think of all the people
that give up their time to help other people, or to do good things in the
community. That’s what makes me proud of this country.’

Shakespeare, the National Trust, the armed forces and the NHS came out of the polls ok (Parliament and legal system not so much) but they left most people feeling unengaged:

‘I think of being British as being about littler things, more boring I suppose.
Like doing your bit and manners and helping out. The thing about British
people is that we do things for each other, you know? Being British is more
about the way we are than things like Buckingham Palace or Parliament.’

There’s a strong tradition of volunteering in the UK, but it’s understated: few of us would think of doing the old lady next-door’s shopping or picking up a friend’s kids from school as community engagement. Even so, the Demos polls showed that two-thirds of respondents had volunteered in the last 12 months. This is very good news.

And it’s true in the US too: volunteering makes you proud of yourself and others, and pride in your community makes you more likely to volunteer and help others. There’s a positive feedback loop that links individuals, local communities and the whole country. Even the very grand: On September 11th 2008 I was in New York to mark the launch of the new service bill through congress. One after another a show-stopping cast of celebrities stepped forward – Hilary Clinton, Jon Bon Jovi, the presidents of Bank of America, GE, Home Depot and Time Inc; Usher, Former President Bush, UN special envoys, representatives of churches, the Presidents of 9 of the top universities, Arnold Schwarzenegger, top military, senators, congressmen and women, Wendy Kopp, Jeffrey Sachs, Queen Noor of Jordan and Alicia Keys – and they all said the same thing: of all their achievements, nothing made them more proud than their volunteering. There must have been a billion dollars in that room, but there were no press.

What else does the Demos report tell us?

  • That four-fifths of those polled agreed with the statement ‘people who are proud of themselves and their community behave in more positive ways.’
  • That one crucial reason why volunteering and social action are so important is that they mix people together, so old and young, rich and poor, black, white and Asian work side by side and explode the lurking stereotypes.
  • That the minute politicians get involved, ordinary people back away:

‘Sometimes when they [politicians] talk about volunteering and all that, it
sounds like they think they invented it or something. I don’t volunteer
because the Government tells me to, I volunteer because I want to – I enjoy
it and I think it’s important, when you get to my age, to give something back
and to stay in touch with what’s going on.’

‘I’m always a bit dubious when the politicians see something good and then
say ‘that’s what I believe in’ because usually they take that thing and they
ruin it.’

So, Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and and Mr Miliband, listen up:

‘Honestly, I hate the Tories. And I feel angry that they’ve taken something
I’m most proud of in my community – the way we pull together and
organise to keep the street tidy and safe – and they’ve said ‘this is a
Conservative thing’. It’s not a Conservative thing, it’s a British thing.
Well I think it’s good that the Government is supporting volunteering. And I
agree with the Big Society or whatever it’s called. But I don’t like it all being
so political – Tories say it’s good, Labour say it isn’t, and then it becomes
like the Labour Party are saying volunteering isn’t good.’

If you want to strengthen our communities, integrate all those who are part of them and increase pride and positive action, then here’s some advice:

Stop cutting the budgets of the organisations that are doing exactly that.

▪ Start making Citizenship in schools mean something: make community action and community learning a    part of the core curriculum of every school and don’t just do it for the little ones. Nobody needs this more      than teenagers, and nobody does it better.

▪ Keep politics out of it. This is not about you, it’s about us.

  4 Responses to “A Place for Pride”

  1. Hi Annabel! Great post! I like how you reframe the discussion. Here’s another take: I’ve been dismayed over the past couple of decades when politicians say that volunteers and the “faith-based community” can take over necessary functions, like keeping parks clean and caring for children and the sick. There’s an important distinction to make, I think, between what volunteers can do well, and what a decently-run government should provide. When I see people convicted of minor crimes doing “community service” by the side of the road, I wonder how things would change if they, or their parents, had paid jobs doing the same thing. When I see a publicity poster for a toy drive or a walk to fund medical research, I can’t help jamming the subtext. Also, and you may know this better than most (!), volunteers are hard to organize. It’s hard to impose a standard on them, or insist on something like cultural sensitivity or a commitment to serving everyone, which is more reasonable when someone is being paid for a service.
    The university where I work has a community service requirement. Students talk about getting it “out of the way,” and I try very hard to get them to do what you just did in your post: think about how it fits into their identity, their program of study, their growth as a human being. It’s sometimes very rewarding, but sometimes also a tough sell, as they have a very instrumental idea of community service already, as something for kids, or something to boost their attractiveness as a college applicant. Talking and thinking about it are a first step, for sure!

    • they no longer wntead young volunteers because they only land them in trouble with the police or are extra work because staff have to babysit them to ensure they dont get into trouble. Still considering the huge amounts of good work that volunteers (the sensible ones) have done in the past and continue to do, I have high hopes for volunteerism. My only plea to those of us that assist in any way to get young volunteers abroad is that we should ensure they undergo some sort of cultural orientation that emphasises 1)respecting others’ culture and laws no matter how strange they seem ( Eeeuw! as half my students would say) 2)Being aware of how helping across cultures can make or break stereotypes and that they are a part of it and 3)Particularly for their mental well-being, also realising that they cant change the place in one trip so not to be too hard on themselves. I have of course contributed to this discussion mostly from what I’m familiar with. Western volunteers in developing countries. Well prepared volunteers may indeed be one small contribution towards fairer international co-operation. Particularly the young whose ways are not set and who are future leaders

  2. Yes yes yes!
    Two thoughts come to mind:
    1.) When I was young my Dad, a long-standing Rotarian, took me to a Rotary event called One-to-One. I couldn’t have been more than 8 nor 9 years of age at the time. One -to-One is a huge annual charity event in Cape Town aimed at giving our disabled community a fun day out. NGO’s and charities and clubs from around the city set up stalls in one of our town halls-games, fun activities, gentle competitions, food stalls. And each disabled visitor to the event is paired with one non-disabled volunteer.
    I remember the day I first attended a One-to-One very clearly-my Dad was on duty at one of the stalls twirling candy floss or coordinating pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey games. I was intimidated and a little scared of all the wonky people mulling about. But before I knew it I was assigned a heavily disabled boy to be my buddy for the day. He clutched my hand and off we went. We didn’t communicate much that day but I know we both had fun- he because this day was his and me because I, for the first time, was experiencing what it was like to give back.
    In retrospect I think that having kids buddy-up with disabled kids at an event like this-and from avery early age onwards-is an excellent idea to stimulate all kinds of new ways of thinking and acting with regards to those who have less than we do-
    2.) Through my work here in Cape Town I’ve interacted with a great organisation called Shine-Shine has started reading centres at some of the cities disadvantaged schools where volunteers (mostly retired teachers but also many many other wonderful people) pair up with a child from the township to help them improve their reading skills. I will never forget the founder of Shine, Maurita Weissenberg tell me that she has often felt that the volunteers get even more out of the experience than the kids themselves. In our still divided city, Shine offers a rare opportunity for white adults to interact constructively with black kids.

    That all being said, South Africans can learn a huge amount from the British in terms of volunteering- it is as yet a culture that is uncommon in our country-one of the most economically unequal in the world. I think we often confuse giving with doing good-I know dozens of generous folk who pay the school fees of their domestic workers kids but very few who give of themselves to contribute to a country that desperately needs it-

    • Hi Fidi,
      Thanks for being part of the conversation! Yes, these memories are so strong, and it’s one reason why being out in the community and meeting our neighbours should start when we’re young. School is the perfect place, because there are people there to ask questions, others to talk to and to provide support and explain things. A framework that you can leave behind as you get older.
      And I completely agree that often the volunteers get so much out of it, that it is so often the experience that makes their worlds bigger and richer and much more compelling. And here’s something I’ve seen time and again – people, especially young people, like themselves when they do this. It’s so hard for teenagers to be comfortable with themselves, they’re so often doing something wrong, or not doing something or being something they should, but when they volunteer, they’re valued, if not plain adored! Most valuable of all – teenage boys. They’re gold-dust. For boys who have no stable father-figures, no male teachers, role models or mentors, just being with a guy who does his homework, always goes to football practice and is going to college, is transformational. For both sides.
      And as you say, volunteering, or just being, in your community is not the same as giving. Giving is good, but it’s flat. It takes more courage to go out and meet people who may not like you or trust you at first, but that courage is more than repaid. I know an amazing woman who is a clinical psychologist who wanted to reach young people where they lived. She went every day to one of their haunts, was spat on and had stones thrown at her at first, but she kept going, for 11 months. Now she and those same young men work together on a ground-breaking approach to community-based mental health provision that is changing the face of care in the UK. An extreme example, but true.

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