Last year’s historic campaign season may be remembered with horror for years to come, but there was one steady glimmer of light—in my house, at least: Watching every presidential debate with my friend, Ariel Bailey, and his wife, Patti. (With snacks.) You see, Ariel uniquely manages to be both a realist and a dreamer, a combination that lent a highly entertaining mix of gravity and levity to the viewing atmosphere. He also works at Repair The World, a Jewish American non-profit organization focused on transforming neighborhoods, cities and lives through meaningful service experiences—making him, therefore, the number one person to guide us all on how to take any social frustration (political or otherwise) and use it to help our neighbors who are less privileged than we are. In the interest of doing just that, I asked him to share his insider-POV on ways to volunteer effectively and how to avoid activist burnout. Below, my rambling questions and his insightful answers.
Let’s be real here: Does community volunteering actually make a difference in our political climate?
Volunteering makes a difference for two main reasons: One, it allows people whose lines of work are removed from a genuine betterment of society the opportunity to bridge that disconnect. And if the recent election was largely centered around a growing sense of alienation, frustration and helplessness (on both sides), one way to heal that sick feeling is to get involved, and to do so graciously. To build up your generous spirit. To concentrate on the positive, constructive forces in you that are not about divide, or anger, or despair.
The second reason is simpler: The act of volunteering may be small for you, but it can mean a great deal to a person in need. Not just because that act helps that person in a concrete way, but because he or she may realize that someone is thinking of them, and that they aren’t invisible, which is often the feeling they have. And, ultimately, it shouldn’t be about you, but about them.
What have you personally gotten out of volunteering?
I like the feeling that, even if I’m not necessarily part of the solution, I am not getting in the way of the solution. I’m not slowing it down, or diverting the attention to meaningless places, but I’m instead helping myself and others move towards a more constructive and communally oriented mindset.
How can we get involved locally?
1. Organize a group of friends, and contact an organization to help out. There are overnight shelters in churches and other institutions looking for volunteers to help cook and serve dinner to men or women (it’s usually separate) in need of a hot meal and a place to sleep and shower. For those of you in New York City, CAMBA is a great place to start.
2. Save those too-small kids’ clothes or no-longer-needed baby supplies, and donate to an organization that supports families in need, like Little Essentials.
We [my husband, three boys and I] loved participating in Repair The World’s family food kitchen event at the beginning of this year. Why do you recommend volunteering as a family?
Volunteering as a family is a great way to get your kids aware of and comfortable with the idea that the world involves other people, with different and important needs that aren’t met, and helps them recognize how fortunate they are in many fundamental ways. And because talking about this with your child is often abstract and only goes so far, actually doing (in the case, volunteering) is a far better way to learn anything.
Rallies and protests are another way lots of people are finding a place within their community and forging togetherness; do they make a difference?
As a concept, sometimes. A protest might apply some pressure and make it clear how we feel about what’s going on (and, personally, they can be cathartic and validating). But I also think that there’s some risk in the high of being with people like you, chanting and writing clever signs: It can provide a false sense of engagement, and sometimes it’s better to do something smaller and more meaningful. It’s like the difference between attending a climate march and actually supporting local farming, buying less, and being conscious of your waste stream day-to-day.
How do you avoid “activist burnout”?
Self-care. Take breaks from the news, and particularly from social media. Remember that you’re not awful if you choose to pass on a protest or a volunteer opportunity to do something for yourself. Keep the big picture in mind, and don’t let every bit of the reality tear you down.
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