|Volunteerism – Its Values, Contexts And Opportunities Among Young People *|
|Written by Dr. Azizan Bahari|
|Friday, 09 January 2009 05:25|
By: Azizan Bahari, Ph.D
Department of Social Work
Faculty of Social and Human Development
Universiti Utara Malaysia
Recognizing the importance of volunteerism as a process of experiential learning, as well as personal and socio-cultural development among young people is, in itself, a commendable achievement of our respective societies. Despite the euphoric quest for material affluence we still continue to rediscover the essence of our social existence and why it should be an essential component of our humanizing and civilizing enterprise.
Indeed, volunteerism has taken roots in every generation, everywhere. It took various forms and, in the course of its development, has also traveled far and wide. It epitomizes human multiculturalism and diversity, and at the same time, serves to bring about and strengthen human bondage across geographical, political and ideological boundaries.
However, this does not mean that we have exhausted its potentials. On the contrary, there are a lot more that can be derived from this durable, tested human spirit cum way of life. We certainly need to reflect and consider the other dimensions of the perspectives and the concepts, the dynamics of the contexts of volunteerism, as well as some possible volunteering opportunities for young people.
Instead of providing lists of “what are” and “what should or ought to be”, this paper deals with some pertinent questions with regard to those aspects of volunteerism. This, we hope, would allow further deliberation among us, now and in the future, in helping our societies to develop and become more humane through volunteerism.
KEY CONCEPTS AND VALUES
Because of the above diversity, volunteerism could be described in many different terminologies. Examples here include: altruism, spiritual quest and fulfillment, a sense of mission, idealism, active citizenship, empowerment, educational process, social cause and commitment, and inculcation and propagation of universal human values.
For our purpose here, it is important to relate all these key concepts and values to the world and imagination of young people. The concepts and values must have meaning to the young, or that they have to be reinvented or given new dimension. For instance, what altruism — the instinct to do good or show kindness to others — and spiritual quest mean to the young today? Do the young of today grow up with that sense of communal spirit and attachment which characterized the earlier (my) generation, for example, to enable them to comprehend and manifest altruism and spiritual quest? Or, is it that while some images of altruism and spiritual quest do have their place in the minds of the young, they alone cannot serve as the motor that drives youth volunteerism forward? Their minds have to be supplemented with other more tangible constructs, such as the idea of economic justice, the right of the marginal and the marginalized to national resources, and the importance of political stability for our social wellbeing.?
In the context of the youth of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, idealism embodied egalitarian spirit of various dimensions – human rights, social justice, labour-capital struggle, anti-exploitation, anti-establishment (read anti-state authoritarianism), youth and students’ rights, anti-imperialist war, etc. Of course that was the time of dramatic political and ideological contentions that followed economic/industrial upheavals and international conflicts. But today, with the relative economic and social progress of our societies (albeit not universalized, as we could still find struggles against super power hegemony and state terrorism of various forms), idealism could have quite different connotation to the young; more inclined towards other non-confrontational ideas and universal human values, perhaps. Youth volunteerism here, therefore, should explore the likes of cross-cultural understanding, global citizenship, peace, inter-civilization engagement, coexistence, humanitarian values, etc.
Idealism and empowerment are relatively newly-coined concepts although their praxis in volunteer work and professional community work had flourished across the globe since the 1950s and 1960s. They essentially signify the active participation or involvement of people or communities in various aspects affecting their lives and destiny. In the present context, the concepts of active citizenship and empowerment among young people could be envisaged and practiced based on many different community issues such as those related to employment, health, economic opportunities, environment, consumerism, and public service and delivery system.
In any case, volunteerism continues to be relevant because of the human social instincts and what it offers that could help to satisfy our social-psychological needs. Volunteerism has become our second nature. Its traditional sources such as religions and belief systems, ideologies, political causes, cultural traditions and values, humanitarian causes, to name the most popular and best understood among them, are still with us today and, certainly long into the future. They continue to inspire people and communities, young and old, to contribute and share — their time, ideas, knowledge, skills/expertise, experiences and wisdom, material and physical energy – with those in need, and in the interest of the larger society.
Volunteerism, including among young people, could still derive its inspiration and passion from those strong, long-cherished values and sources mentioned above. We need to work out and share a more creative and relevant interpretation of these concepts and values, particularly the ones drawn from the rich, unique experiences of our respective societies.
In order to inculcate and encourage volunteerism among young people we have to understand the changes taking place around us and, in particular, those that are directly affecting young people. These include economy, technology (including the media, cyber world), and culture and value system (ideology). Of course there are also the important influencing role of the family, the peers and the schooling system on the attitude and character of young people, not to mention the impact of the state and the dominant society already mentioned earlier.
Being young also means the individual is undergoing various physical, psychological, emotional and cognitive changes. Thus, their attitudes and behaviours, responses and reactions toward volunteerism, have to be understood in those contexts, including the dramatic changes taking place in the young themselves.
Apart from all that, the young are not homogenous group – describable or lumped together just because of their youthful identity. The young people are essentially individuals bearing the traits of their socio-economic backgrounds. Socio-economic backgrounds which provide the necessary indicators of the individuals’ lifestyle, material wealth, neighbourhood, circle of family friends, access to various kinds of services and facilities (including education, training), etc. play important part in shaping the overall character, personality and thinking capacity of the individuals.
All these factors and their interplay influence the way young people perceive and develop their interest toward volunteerism. These factors must be considered in relation to the key concepts and values just discussed to enable us to come up with more plausible propositions as to how to inculcate and encourage the young to volunteer.
Needless to say, the oft-repeated statements about “the lack of volunteer spirit among young people today”, “the young are too individualistic”, and “volunteerism is becoming less relevant, especially among the young” are rendered meaningless, besides being unhelpful, if they are made without explaining the influencing factors and the dynamics just mentioned. In other words, just as strategies developed to promote and encourage young people to volunteer must take into account all these factors, failures to make an impact on certain section of young people must also be seen in the same light.
At the micro level we should seriously and systematically promote and inculcate volunteer interest through the media and technology, the internet, sports and recreation, theatre, popular literature, travel/tourism, music and songs, entertainment, etc. Information and announcements, opportunities for placements, guidance and coaching, motivation and support service, referral, etc. should be made accessible on-line. In other words, volunteerism should be compatible with the young.
The important role of research in promoting and developing volunteerism cannot be more emphasized. A lot need to be done here. Even our knowledge and understanding of the basic profiles of volunteers and volunteer organizations, areas of interest among different categories of the population, volunteer time, motivation, and the likely impact of volunteer efforts on the society is scanty and far from satisfactory. What about the dynamics of the above factors which provide new contexts of volunteerism and affect the attitude of, and volunteering among, the young? At most, we could only guess. Researches (and of course publications) and a more professional culture in managing organizations and volunteer work must be strongly encouraged as this would greatly help practitioners and volunteerism to move forward.
Volunteerism must certainly be introduced at an early age – in the family, play school, primary school, etc. Here, easily family volunteerism, school activities and community-based programmes which start with basics such as concern and care for the needy, the environment, civic awareness and engagement, etc. could lead the way, and a long way in fact. State-sponsored and institution-based (including the school) volunteer projects that mobilize large groups of students to volunteer, for example, could be an interesting idea, not less for the publicity and impact it created on the young and the general public.
Earlier we mentioned that volunteerism has come a long way; has traveled far and wide. In the course of its evolution, volunteerism has also been enriched by the experiences of many different cultures and backgrounds. As manifested in various ways, volunteerism is a dynamic human project that must be sustained to continue to serve communities and human society. For this, we now consider some of the possible opportunities and support system for young people to volunteer.
VOLUNTEERING OPPORTUNITIES AMONG THE YOUNG
Here, a number of issues are highlighted for our consideration. These include the question of power and control and the attitude of the authorities toward encouraging volunteerism, initiative and possible role of young people, democracy and empowerment of the young, social policy issues, programmes and facilities, and support system for young people to volunteer.
When we talk about creating opportunities or spaces for the involvement of young people we cannot but raise the question of how power and control is exercised or practiced in our societies. Power and control become important because they inform the authorities’ view and expectation with respect to the participation and role of young people, hence the availability of political space for that participation and role, the nature and extent of involvement, etc. Power and control are also important because they directly affect resource allocation and distribution which contributes to volunteer efforts.
Young people usually take cue from the government and tend to respond to what they perceive to be the established way of the dominant society. This tendency is inherent in the nurture (in the family setting, the community, etc.) and certainly the schooling system which young people have long been subject to. Thus, if the authorities’ perception of volunteerism is positive (with the necessary support and encouragement) then the young tend to reciprocate in like manner. However, if the authorities are cautious about letting the young to initiate activities (that they believe to be in the interest of the community) then they cannot be expected to unreservedly support any community projects or events forced upon them. Likewise, if there is lack of volunteer effort at the community level where young people grow up, then it is difficult for volunteerism to find its strong root and new shoots among them.
In many situations, with the resources at their disposal, the authorities determine what, how and for whom these resources are to be utilised. Decisions are usually based on the interests of the established order. Although what is termed as “the general wellbeing” is secured in that decision-making process, it could be to the long-term detriment of the young and society in general. Volunteerism must come out and rise from below. Initiative by the state, however noble its intention, could not but be viewed with caution (if not suspicion), in so far as its long-term effect on the creativity and initiative of the young is concerned. Political spaces must, therefore, be created to allow the young to play their part, otherwise we would continue to reproduce the docile and subservient mentality which we, in the first place, often criticize and blame the young for.
As implied earlier, volunteerism also advocates active grass-root involvement and therefore supports that ancient yet evergreen notion of democracy. If democracy, and its attendant civil society, were to be sustained as the way of our societies for a foreseeable future, what is a better platform to promote and encourage it among the young than volunteerism? Of course some may argue about the possible risks involved, but as in other fields of human endeavour, social entrepreneurship must also provide some allowance for risks, not to mention some damage-control mechanism and necessary adjustments to rectify them.
Indeed, opportunities and support must come hand in hand. In consonant with democratic spirit, the young should be allowed to choose and determine their own interest areas/fields of volunteerism. There are too many to choose from, and the society is in need of everyone’s contribution in every conceivable aspect of life. They should be encouraged to create own opportunities to volunteer and be an impact in society. The idea here is empowerment — to empower the young, not to do things for them, or seize initiative away from them. Of course, lending support and providing assistance has to be executed in a way that does not create (or with the intention of creating!) long-term dependency among the young, hence stifling their creativity, innovation, leadership potential and entrepreneurship. We have learnt enough lessons from the past – ever since the colonial days – about that monstrous patronage system and how it was continuously reproduced as a means to control and channel the people’s energy in a certain “acceptable” or “right way” by the state…
Empowering and capacity building also entail that the young people come forward to jointly and actively tackle and manage their own situations. The apparent failure of “adults’ way” of handling what are termed as social ills, social deviance, etc., for instance, should be testimony to the lack of perspective, creativity and social innovation among us, not to mention the adult limitation and lack of acceptance by the young concerned. The forums and talk shows over the radios and televisions, the repeated sermons before the assemblies and prayers, and the value-laden journalistic, so-called investigative reports and commentaries did little to affect the symptoms (via the attitudes and behaviours) shown. (Thus, drug pushers, road bullies and “Mat Rempits”, a Malaysian term for members of motorcycle gangs plying the public roads, for example, continue to rule the day!) Besides, other more powerful economic, technological, and social (national) policy factors are not well addressed or seldom brought to the equation.
Gloomy though this may appear, we must continue to persistently look for a more appropriate approach to handle the situation, not less through volunteer efforts and modalities. Perhaps the young people, through peer efforts, could contribute in a significant way in this, and of course in others too.
Opportunities should also be created in the form of social policy and legislative measures that would help to boost volunteerism among young people. Here, it must be noted that certain government policies or policy statements which could contribute to boosting volunteerism such as concerning social capital, caring society, and promoting balanced development should be “seized” upon by the voluntary sector (voluntary organizations in particular) by way of giving creative interpretation and concrete meaning to them at the ground level. In the interest of volunteerism and community at large the voluntary organizations should be accommodating to this type of policies.
At the same time, certain aspects of the existing policies, statutes and regulations that are less volunteer-friendly, or hinder the development of associational life and citizens’ participation in the issues affecting their lives, for instance, should be reviewed and amended accordingly. Here it must be realized that a lot of human resources and potentials (that could be channeled and generated to serve the society) are wasted or not properly utilized because of this policy ramification.
Of course in many of our countries volunteering opportunities come about through programmes and facilities provided by the government, the voluntary organizations and the private sector. The important thing to consider here is the fact that although lots of resources are committed to these programmes and facilities, they fail to generate interest and secure the involvement of young people. Researchers and analysts have long suggested what and where the problems are, but the organizations concerned appear to lack the courage and commitment to rectify them. Again, in this case, it is the society that loses out.
The other important thing for us to consider when discussing opportunities is the question of support system that must feature together with the programmes and facilities provided. In certain areas of volunteer work or activities, the support in the form of experts, advisors, coaches, mentors and or supervisors are important especially in aspects of education, training, and development of the volunteers concerned, not the programmes per se. Here, while there is such possibility of “power and control” mechanism (as mentioned above) coming into play, we still need to weigh the situation properly and act wisely (in the interest of volunteers and volunteerism of course!), bearing in mind that when we talk about the important role of volunteers and volunteerism in our societies, we must not forget that it means little if the volunteers themselves remain static, lack perspectives and knowledge, underdeveloped, and unskilled.
Volunteerism has proven to be a sustainable, noble human enterprise. It continues to rekindle passion and commitment from people, including the young, all over. Although we can still benefit from its rich, long-tested, traditional powerhouses such as religions and belief systems, ideologies, political causes, cultural traditions and values, and humanitarian causes, we need to creatively interpret and give new, relevant meanings to them to capture the “new person” in our young people today.
The dramatic changes which affect the present-day contexts of volunteerism have to be critically assessed against the personal, biological and social development of the young if we are to understand “the whys” and “the hows” (of our young people) with respect to volunteerism. Having said that, it should be clear that those who have access to resources, the authorities, and the voluntary sector, all could play significant part to encourage and support young people towards this volunteering culture.
Many opportunities and support systems could be created to boost volunteerism among young people in every society. The paper has touched upon some aspects of these that require further deliberations and exchanges. But, from own experiences, and certainly with the active and creative involvement of young people, our society should be able to create other more interesting opportunities and devise support systems that meet the new demands and situations, and hence contribute to developing our young volunteers.
* Paper presented at regional Symposium on Developing Young Volunteers organized by International Youth Centre Foundation and the Ministry of Youth and Sports Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 3-10 December, 2006.
THE CHANGING CONTEXTS OF VOLUNTEERISM