Contradicting myself?

In the same day, online, I applauded an organization that involved volunteers to help preserve historic sites on US public lands, and then questioned California for relying so much on volunteers to maintain state parks.

Am I a hypocrite?

No. Well, at least not about this.

The nonprofit HistoriCorps engages volunteers to work on historic preservation projects in USA. Individual projects might last from a week to more than two months. Cultural and historical sites in the USA are at risk because of drastic budget cuts by state and federal governments – many could already be beyond saving. This program could never repair everything that needs repairing, but what it can do, through volunteering, is educate people about those needs and about the consequences of those budget cuts. This program repairs a small number of sites every year, but maybe even more importantly, it also creates passionate advocates for US historical sites. It also is a way for historic sites to involve Americans in a deeper way than just as a visitor. This program builds job skills, gives people construction experience, and engages youth. From the web site: “Projects offer unending opportunities to tell America’s greatest stories, making historical connections real, and cultivating among those involved an appreciation of the heritage, balanced use and stewardship of our nation’s special places.” Even if there was enough money to hire paid staff to do all of the work needed to preserve these historic sites, it would be a great idea to reserve some work for volunteers, to keep those many benefits for historic sites and volunteers alike.

By contrast, this story from the Nonprofit Quarterly about volunteers in California state parks pretty much says, We don’t have enough money to pay people to do the work of keeping state parks open, so we need people to work for free. Ugh. Volunteer engagement in this case isn’t presented as building community or engaging under-served populations or building awareness or giving people a deeper experience at the parks – it’s presented as being about having an unpaid labor force to get the work done. I’m very grateful that volunteers are keeping California state parks open – I’m a California state park user. And just as with HistoriCorps, absolutely, let’s keep volunteers involved in trail repair, invasive plant removal, habitat restoration, rehabilitation of historic orchards, etc., so that not only can the work be done, but also, so volunteers can have a deeper relationship with the parks they love and become advocates for state parks – and state funds for those park.

In fact, I think that, in both these cases, volunteers are helping for the same reasons: their love of these sites. And I think the results are quite similar: volunteers get work done but, more importantly, volunteers are seeing first hand the consequences of cuts in government funding. The contrast really is a matter of language and attitude about volunteer engagement. So, let me say it again: watch your language regarding volunteer engagement. Saying,”If they don’t do this, we’ll close!” can also mean, “Volunteers are free! We don’t have to pay people! Hurrah!”

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *