Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Good volunteerism vs. "bad" volunteerism

I used to "argue" with my ex-wife about "direct" vs. "indirect" service. We both worked for national organizations focused on social change. She worked for an organization concerned with food-related poverty issues; I worked at a consumer group focused on nutrition and public health policies. Both groups focused on what I term structural change and govt. programs, such as nutrition labeling, pesticide laws, health policy at my group; school food service, WIC and other programs at her group.

But she didn't get the kind of satisfaction that comes from "helping people directly" that comes from giving someone a meal at a soup kitchen. I called that direct service, whereas I was happy to focus on deeper, but harder to realize, structural changes, in order to help more people in substantive ways.

Her way was to help people, but not to change their conditions in material ways, while I was (and continue to be) focused on deeper structural changes.

This comes up, for me anyway, with a volunteerism program in Arizona, called For Our City. There's an article about it in the Arizona Republic, "Non-profit wants to honor Arizona centennial with service." From the article:

In honor of Arizona's centennial in 2012, a Tempe non-profit has challenged residents, businesses and faith groups to volunteer 100 hours of community service this year. For Our City, a program managed by Care Inc., launched "100 Hours in 2011" last week. Care Inc. founder and Tempe resident Jon McHatton said the goal is to get hundreds of people to dedicate 100 hours of their time to caring for the homeless and hungry, to mentoring or to other human-service projects.

The organization's website describes its work as a "catalyst for constructive change at community grassroots levels. It provides a “safe place” for municipal, faith, non-profit and business leaders to dialogue for effective solutions for their community."

But if you look at what they work on, it's mostly in "direct service" helping programs that while helping people and helping them individually. This strikes me that it's about not questioning how things are done all that much, but helping people who need help. That's important, but I wonder how much substantive "dialogue" occurs, and whether or not "effective" and substantive "solutions" are ever proffered.

The program likely isn't pursuing deeper, structural changes in local programs, government, policy, and society, so that material conditions for individuals and populations change significantly and substantively.

Sort of like what DC does with youth improvement programs. People make reports without deep analysis, and mostly the reports are about giving monies to helping organizations, but questions about effectiveness and the quality of outcomes remain.

I know that there isn't a lot of recognition in working for structural change as most people don't understand it, but in the long run, I think it accomplishes much more overall.

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