My passion for environmental conservation and community building is the foundation of my life and professional path. I believe the value of volunteering is truly priceless and in a culture that emphasizes monetary value as personal value, it is more urgent than ever to shift that paradigm to recognize that time and talent are the most precious resources to create positive impact. April is Global Volunteer Month, and Earth Day is celebrated on April 22nd, so there are a lot of slogans and “bumper sticker” sounding hashtags shared by companies to ride the meme-theme wave. But doing good and co-creating a world that works for everyone takes imagination, commitment and cooperation every day.
A Lifechanging Experience of Volunteering
There were key events in my life that strongly influenced my values and career in the volunteering sector. The first was when I was 5-years-old and my school participated in a coastal cleanup in southern California. Of course, at that age I had no idea about whatever forms of on-boarding was necessary for our 40-kid class to do this, but I vividly recall the adults leading the project telling us how the work we would do that day helped the fish, sea lions, seabirds, tidal pool creatures and humans to have a better life. Then we all had fun with “litter-gitters” – mostly doing the job of picking up and bagging trash but sometimes devolving into playful “sword fights,” kids being kids. I felt good at the end of the day, and that experience anchored a deep lifelong caring and connection to the environment and the value in being a “Helper.” This was also the era of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and his saying of “Look for the Helpers” in times of trouble stays with me to this day.
The second lifechanging event was during a year with a conservation corps in 1990, when I was accepted into a pilot program testing “glasnost” (openness) between the USSR and the USA. Thirty Americans were chosen from various state conservation corps for a 2-month exchange of environmental conservation techniques and ideas. We were spilt into two teams; one in Moscow, the other (my team) was based in a town outside of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and my group was integrated with Ukrainians, Georgians, Buryat (indigenous Siberian), Belarusians and Russians local to that Baltic sea region as a new team. We all became friends bonding through hard work, good times and bad: playing music, going on fun touristy weekend trips, illness and minor injuries. We were all in it together, working on the common goal of wetland and forest restoration – doing good, learning from each other. Even with the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, we managed to write letters and stay in touch for a couple of years before losing touch. The exchange program only ran that year, then with the breakup of the USSR, federal resources shifted to the development and launch of AmeriCorps and the rest is history. In the current crisis of war, I’ve been thinking about those times and my old friends, and worrying, wondering – are they caught up in the terror happening right now?
More Help Than Harm
One of my favorite work-from-home wardrobe items is a well-worn blue “People Power” t-shirt from a Points of Light conference years ago. True to the shirt motto, people have more power to create change working together to revitalize their communities than struggling to do anything alone.
I traveled quite a bit pre-pandemic, and time and again I found that wherever I was, whatever language or culture, people are people, and there are many more helpers than those who do harm.
The vast majority of us are going about our lives, just trying to get through the day and enjoy our time with friends and family (found or original) for connection and belonging. We have more in common with each other than the news cycles would lead us to believe and it is important to understand our unique stories and value different lived experiences. Nature creates and thrives in variety!
Then there are all the variations of the “Golden Rule” worldwide: “Hurt not others with what pains yourself,” and many more sayings with the same core meaning. Research demonstrates an altruistic human nature, even in infants. In my career with volunteerism (maybe I’m biased) most of us, most of the time, step up to do good when there are calls for help.
A small number of people with extraordinary power are doing the majority of harm to other people and the planet, and these very few also set up and perpetuate harmful systems for their own greed and gain. The lasting harm of colonialism, imperial ambitions and extractive and exploitive economic systems are out of balance with nature and humanity. Millions more people (often volunteers) are doing extraordinary work to dismantle these harmful systems to create equity, justice and stop ecological disasters.
The majority of volunteering worldwide is estimated to be around 70% informal (not associated with an organization/agency), and of course, these activities being unmeasured makes obtaining accurate metrics challenging. Most people have an impulse to help their community in times of trouble and disaster, natural or man-made. Others may not self-define as “volunteers” for keeping a neighborhood park safe and clean, or walking the elder neighbor’s dog or playing music at a religious gathering twice a week. A nonprofit could consider someone’s performance of these of activities on a regular basis as volunteering if it in any way supports the NPO’s mission and work – it depends on who and how the data is recorded. Also, different cultures have their own lens of what is expected for communal service, expression of faith or contributions to society that a nonprofit would “count” as volunteering but to the person doing the good deeds, it’s simply part of life. We as #LeadersOfVolunteers need to expand the definition of “volunteer” and get out of our own way as gatekeepers. People who aren’t counted don’t count, and that can be used to underestimate good deeds, and devalue the work we do with and as volunteers.
One of the best examples of informal volunteering inspiring “formal” organizations to action is the #TrashChallenge, started in Ukraine in 2019. Within a few months of teens posting a friendly competition cleaning up neighborhood litter, millions of people were inspired to take direct, local action. This is a great example of gamified volunteer engagement – a fun, friendly competition with a big positive impact. Soon “official” volunteering events formed by government agencies and nonprofits jumped on the #TrashChallenge trend, and the original group of Ukrainian teens put together a website to promote and support the spontaneous global movement.
Here is the English translation of the mission on Trashchallenge.org:
This is the global relay of being not indifferent to the lives of people who are ready to change themselves wittingly to be an example of positive changes in the world. By changing yourself internally, you change your attitude to the outside, giving rise to revaluation of things that surrounded you.
Original website in Ukrainian: http://trashchallenge.org/about_us/
Beyond the Bumper Sticker
Earth Day is every day, and nature and planet Earth will go on, whether or not humans cause our own extinction and bring millions of species with us. It is difficult to imagine a world that can make the change to clean energy and equitable economies in the short window we have left to avoid the worst climate and humanitarian outcomes.
So how do we inspire ourselves and others to volunteer, help, “do good”, when every day feels like the end of the world? If you have the means to act when it is needed most, do it. Do what you can, where you can, whenever you can. Act locally, think globally.
I draw a lot of my own inspiration from Jane Goodall and her proven message of hope over fear. I had the honor of seeing her speak and meeting her a few years ago. In my own conservation career, especially teaching and learning from volunteers, I’ve seen first-hand how hopelessness can be overwhelming and lead to apathy instead of evidence-informed action. Knowledge is power and the first step to empowerment is acknowledging the problem and mapping the next steps to solving it. This is not done with false positivity (which disempowers) or denial of our participation in collective harm, but with inspiration to action, for the environment, social justice, equity, accessibility and for all creatures great and small (yes, humans count as creatures!) to not only survive but thrive. We Americans have our creed of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but the same sentiment rings true in every language and culture.
All people inherently have and deserve the full range of human rights and quality of life. It takes all of us reimagining and recommitting ourselves to people power for good to revitalize the world and our societies. You, me, us, we – are all in this together!