When you think of volunteerism, what do you think of? What image springs into your head?
Actually, there are lots of answers to that, and they’re probably informed by your own experiences, and that’s wonderful. What I ought to ask is: what do TV writers evidently think of when they think of volunteerism? What cultural image embodies that concept?
Soup. Ladling soup. Some white kid with their heart in the right place, ladling soup out to the homeless.
There’s a lot to do at a soup kitchen. Someone has to acquire raw ingredients. Someone has to prep those ingredients; someone has to cook them. Someone has to clean the place, near-constantly. And that’s just the soup. Someone has to acquire and maintain the space; someone has to advertise; someone has to coordinate with other social services. Depending on how you do it, you can skip some of these things—the Food Not Bombs chapters in my area just go serve food in the park and rely on word of mouth, but even they have to forage for ingredients, maintain their cooking spaces, and so forth.
On TV, all of this is reduced to one white kid, ladling out soup. Which is telling. Seeing that image, I wonder: why is she even there? I mean, there’s the soup, there’s a ladle, and there’s a pile of bowls. People—even homeless people—can generally ladle soup without assistance. The ladler, in this scene, isn’t giving out food—she’s portioning out food: this much for you, this much for you, this much for you….
I think that image and its connotations, more than any reality, damages the notion of “volunteerism”. I don’t want soup ladlers. I don’t want people to “help” me. I don’t want to “help” people. Volunteerism, in short, isn’t activism. Volunteerism is me giving you food. Activism is us, cooking. The government isn’t going to encourage activism, because activism, at its best, is dangerous—not violent, but not helpful, and certainly not safe.
[ Of course, TV has an image of activism, too. That would be (a) white college kids protesting something, or (b) passionate brown people working to “bring down” televangelists whose refineries are giving cancer to children (the passionate brown people, obviously, exist only for as long as they are useful to the main cast). ]