Volunteering as Civic Engagement At Home and Abroad

Blog Post
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Oct. 23, 2017

This blog is part of the civic engagement blog series released in tandem with the "Building Civic Capacity in a Time of Democratic Crisis" white paper. To read the rest of the series, click here

This summer, 100 Americorps volunteers dressed up as dinosaurs to protest President Trump’s budget, which proposed to severely cut national service programs. Their ask was simple: “Stop national service extinction.”

Trump, like most, clearly thinks of volunteering as superfluous: good when there’s extra time or extra money, but not as a necessary line in the budget and definitely not as a crucial part of our civic engagement infrastructure.

In an era of low voter turnout and dramatic, international referendums, it’s easy to focus on the electoral part of the political process, like voting, contacting representatives, and signing petitions. Those actions are too-often the only focus of our civic engagement call-to-arms. And as the past year has shown, however, it is often elections themselves that are a source of increasing partisanship and division, both in the US and abroad.

That’s why today, it is even more important to redefine and expand our ideas about civic engagement to include other types of contributions that people can make to their communities. And this is not a brand new idea. In fact, the US used to be a pioneer when it came to broad types of civic engagement.

Theda Skocpol’s work on the history of voluntary groups like the Federation of Women’s Clubs, American Legion, Fraternal Order of Eagles, or the Odd Fellows, shows that these organizations not only celebrated patriotism, but they also emphasized American values and identity, and acted as emotional and financial support networks for their members in times of tragedy. In the 19th century, American civic engagement was centered around these national clubs, which acted as the entry point for most people into their communities and governments.

But according to Skocpol, the progress of the 1960s led to civic shifts, what she calls a “reorganization” of American society. Not only have these voluntary organizations dissolved, but Americans are less united across class lines, more likely to join professional organizations than service groups, and as a culture, more likely to see voluntary groups and politics as being entirely separate.

Volunteering, unlike calling representatives, gives citizens agency and actively builds up the communities that support our political processes by developing closer interpersonal relationships and giving people an active role in change-making, concrete tools and hands-on experiences, and developing closer interpersonal relationships. And while Trump is looking to cut these programs, leaders in Germany and Liberia are making them a civic priority.

In Germany, volunteer programs have been put in place to help reunify communities that face residual divisions and new inclusion challenges following the refugee crisis. To speak to such programs’ potential in a more extreme scenario, Liberian volunteers have helped post-conflict societies rebuild critical infrastructure. These two countries’ efforts to expand citizen engagement shows that this is not limited to political participation, but includes active involvement in the community to build relationships that contribute to social cohesion and future political stability.

As two Western, industrialized, international powerhouses, Germany and the United States are easy to compare. And though formal American divisions during the Civil War and beyond were never as literal as the Iron Curtain, the underlying, remaining tensions are similar. Lower life satisfaction, life expectancy, and economic strength per capita between the East and West has meant relationships between the two regions are still strained. On top of geographic divides, racism towards Germany’s 3 million Turkish immigrants has created ethnic and social splits. With America’s post-election polarization and current racial self-reflection, this kind of division is somewhat familiar. Unlike America, Germany, is addressing it differently by utilizing government-led, call-to-arms volunteer programs.

In Germany, civic participation is a part of developing national unity in continued efforts to reintegrate the formerly divided country. The government sees active citizenship as “an important pillar of social cohesion and integration” and values “soft” participation in organizations others might discredit, like clubs, networks, and religious organizations, noting that volunteer numbers are lower in the East (38.5% in 2014) than the West (44.8%).

As a means to develop what it calls a “culture of recognition for civic engagement,” the federal government has established multiple programs like the Engagierte Stadt —“Engaged City”— initiative, which has invested 3 million euros (3.5 million dollars) into strengthening the participation structure in cities and municipalities by building on grassroots and local knowledge. With these programs, the government hopes to “develop active citizenship,” “stabilize” civic participation networks, and increase volunteering in East Germany.

This kind of engagement is not only helpful to creating a more stable citizenship, but also to better absorb new societal challenges. For example, volunteer programs targeted at refugee integration have become more important because class and geographic divisions between the East and West are still notable. Adding migrants also added another point of contention, division, and conflict. At a time when Eastern Germans still feel left behind and excluded from the federal “economic miracle,” the arrival of a new group receiving federal aid was unwelcome. Some commentators cited the increase of almost 1 million refugees—and racism towards those minorities—as a source of East Germany’s overwhelming support for the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland party in September’s election.

In response to the pre-existing racism and geographic divisions amplified by the refugee challenge, the German government has prioritized integration through two main programs: People Strengthening People, which has Germans act as “godparents” and sponsors of new refugee arrivals; and the Integration through Sports, which allows migrants to participate as volunteers, brings German and refugee children together, and aims to include former refugees on its advisory board. Both initiatives operate on the idea that interpersonal contact helps break down prejudices and build social cohesion. As the federal unity report notes, volunteers have been “indispensable” in the refugee resettlement process. Through those programs citizens are able to offer each other what bureaucratic policy normally can’t human connection, personal relationships, and community support.

For post-conflict societies like Liberia, volunteering has been utilized as a means to rebuild community, supplement government programs, and support peacebuilding efforts.

In 2007, Liberia joined with the UN Volunteer Program to create the National Youth Volunteer Service, similar to Americorps: Volunteers commit to one year of service and a small salary to give back to their community and gain job experience. In 2011, UNICEF took over the initiative as the National Youth Service Programme. After two civil wars (and only two years of peace from 1989-2003), Liberian infrastructure and agricultural production were severely damaged. Youth unemployment was as high as 65% by some counts and 75% of the population was younger than 35. The NYVS program trained recent university graduates in community development, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and to specialize in one of four areas: education, youth development, health, or agriculture. Some elements of the program specifically targeted marginalized youth populations. The program’s focus was on rebuilding Liberia and providing grads with work experience, but also to help redevelop citizenship and national identity.

However, volunteering as part of government policy to encourage civic participation has also been tricky. One possible pitfall of government-organized programs is that volunteering takes the place of what should be government action. In the Southern African region, for example, community volunteers have acted as the “backbone” of the HIV/AIDS management efforts by offering medical care, advocating for orphans, running daycares, and educating other civilians, often supplementing what governments may or may not provide.

Another potential issue is the line between policy-focused, government-mandated volunteering and exploitation. That has been the case in Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide, the country re-established the tradition of Umuganda, a monthly day of national community service. For three hours during the last Saturday of every month, roads and businesses close as every Rwandans aged 18-65—almost 80% of the population—are required to participate in infrastructure and environmental protection projects. With this model, Rwanda has used the volunteering to rebuild and maintain their post-genocide nation. By mandating participation, the program involves Hutu-Tutsi cooperation and local-level community building. The country is also extremely clean, as a result. However, the government not only promotes this tradition, it mandates it and fines those who do not participate. Notably, the program is extremely convenient for the Rwandan government: the value of Umuganda activities in 2011-2012 was estimated to be worth just under $20,000,000.

When executed as more self-motivated acts of service within an optional government structure, volunteering can offer an avenue for civic engagement and social stability, both to avoid potential conflict and to help move a community past an era of division.

American policymakers know this. AmeriCorps, established in 1993, includes 80,000 volunteers every year who help with post-disaster recovery, building affordable housing, mentoring high school students, participating in environmental clean-up, and helping veterans access benefits programs. With 56,000 corps members and alumni, Teach for America has impacted 390,000 students since it was founded in 1989.

For this moment of political division, fatigue, and polarization, local-level service may be a way to bring Americans back into civic life. While national election turnout is bad, local numbers are worse. In most major cities, turnout for the latest mayoral elections has been under under 20 percent; in New York City, 14% of the population voted and in Dallas, turnout hit an incredible 6.1%. Volunteering, on the other hand, saw participation from 24.9% of the population in 2015. Like voting, volunteering is also becoming less popular in recent years, with the 2015 figure representing at 0.4 percentage point decrease from 2014. But redefining civic engagement as more than just hard political participation—and not shaming those who prefer volunteering to blockwalking or protesting—could help. By valuing local community-building in this way, Americans might feel like they have a more concrete way to fix their dissatisfaction with the state of events or the frustration they feel with current politics.

But as our civic institutions are not as strong as they once were, the government cannot forget its role. Based on these international examples, strengthening civil society should be approached as a partnership by looking at our democracy from a community-oriented perspective. Volunteering should not be considered a luxury for times of stability, but as a means of counteracting discord, unrest, and conflict by viewing the people as partners for peace.

Trump’s proposed budget is still up for debate. The importance of volunteering and community-building shouldn’t be.