I’m a coward, so I volunteer

Some people are brave. Proactive. Righteous as hell. A few thousand brave people marched on Washington at the end of August. Many of these brave people have no choice but to be brave. Pandemic or not, marginalized people have always had to face ongoing—and often unexpected—threats to their personal and economic safety.  

I am not brave. Certainly not brave enough to attend a large, historic gathering (even after my company offered the day off and to cover the accommodations). Too paranoid to even snort forcefully near a stranger since the pandemic started (wear your masks, everyone!), I’ve mostly cowered in my neighborhood these past months. I periodically throw a few metaphorical bills at social-sector organizations and nod approvingly while passing protests on my block.

Highly visible demonstrations have forced international engagement with the problems of racial and economic inequities in a way that op-eds, white papers, and media appearances—what you might call champagne activism—could not accomplish. Letting multiple local protests literally pass me by felt obscene. I wanted to help somehow. What’s a coward—who still somehow fancies herself a person with values—to do?

She volunteers. While the most visible activists will always be crucial to powering social and political movements, people who support the machinery of social and political action are also valuable. So, while fired-up activists marched and chanted in Washington, I spent some of that day helping a friend manage her social venture’s cash flow from my desk at home. I used the other half of the day to research organizations and campaigns that work on issues of racial and economic equity, hoping to identify two or three organizations where I could volunteer in a sustainable way.

There is no such thing as a bad time to volunteer, but the social justice imperative feels particularly urgent in this moment. I—we all—may also have more personal, somewhat self-serving reasons to volunteer. Even when society is not in crisis, people volunteer to fulfill a sense of purpose and to connect with others. At a time when our regular interpersonal interactions are largely confined to our partners, family members, and colleagues—thanks for being there (remotely), Leff team!—even looking for volunteer opportunities has brought me closer to people.

People I hadn’t spoken to in a while responded warmly, made suggestions, and asked to catch up after I announced my intention to find volunteer opportunities with organizations that work on economic and racial equity issues. One lead came through a client, who suggested that I apply to mentor high schoolers from low-income families through Minds Matter. He told me about how he had volunteered as a mentor when he was a new graduate and spoke of the rush of warmth he felt when his mentee, now a first-generation college graduate, told him that, after three years of working together, he wanted to attend the same alma mater. I applied to be a mentor.

Volunteering can also be a source of optimism. The fact that there are organizations and campaigns doing work that inspires us to give our time and energy means that there are people—and forces—that are pushing the world in the right direction. Even if I personally have a bad day, or even a string of them, fellow travelers can help keep me on track and reinforce good habits.

Protesting may not feel possible for everyone at the moment. However, committing time and skills to the goal of racial and economic equity still contributes to progress. So, I’m working to build volunteering into the structure of my life. With such engagements as a cornerstone habit, I hope to do more deep work, to connect with more people, and to prove to myself that even a pandemic coward can push society toward something better. If you recognize yourself in any of this, I hope you can find a manageable way to contribute. Thank you.

Leff works with select social-sector organizations on a pro bono basis. If your organization would benefit from marketing communications support—from strategy to execution—get in touch. We’d love to explore ways to support you.

Leave a Reply