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  • Deah Curry PhD

Beware of that Christmas Urge to Volunteer -- A New Thought on an Old Problem

I’m about to say something shocking. You might want to go grab another eggnog and brace yourself.

The other day I was having a conversation with a young man who works for an organization whose primary mission is to provide meals for homeless youth. He used a phrase I hadn’t heard before to describe a desire of some well-intentioned folks of privilege who feel the impulse to volunteer time to similar agencies, especially around the holidays. He said they were looking for the homeless experience.

Then he mentioned the requests he gets from school and church groups to bring in a busload of kids to observe how such organizations work to serve the needy – kind of like going to the zoo and gawking at creatures trying their best to live their lives under very harsh and unnatural conditions.

In that moment I realized that the counter to the over-commercialization of the holidays is not to go spend one afternoon a year at a soup kitchen. It does not help such organizations to show up one day a year so you can feel better about yourself and relieved about your own economic status. And giving the homeless experience to your kids as a Christmas activity to bring meaning to the whole family is not likely to make them more aware of the real problems of the individual person living the everyday experience of homelessness.

Most of those organizations want volunteers, yes. But they want people who will make a six month commitment or longer. Most need to put you through an orientation and training program before you interact with their clients. Showing up out of the blue on a rainy Christmas afternoon puts a bigger burden on the organization and frankly gets in the way of what homeless persons need on a daily basis.

What then would be a better way to help, you might ask. Educate yourself about the systemic oppressions that cause and perpetuate poverty, and learn about the many ways you enjoy privilege.

And I don’t mean the privileges, plural, of having a roof over your head, or a car to drive, extra clothes you can give away just because they are last year’s fashion, or an income that allows you freedom from worry and want.

By privilege I mean the things you never have to consider, that never even come into your conscious, the freedoms and opportunities that are automatically afforded to you that you don’t even notice because of your gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and yes, absolutely, the privilege that envelopes you, or doesn't, because of the color of your skin.

Having the luxury of easy access to the internet to be reading this blog with a nice nutmeg garnished eggnog in hand is a sign of your privilege. And because of your privilege, you are likely well-employed, and getting time off for a holiday that government and society and even most retailers recognize despite not giving time off for the holy days of other religions.

And sitting here, in my home office, where I as a self-employed person -- who was able to get a mortgage because of a confluence of privilege I enjoy -- have leisure to do as to do as I please in the middle of the day in the middle of any week, is sign of my own privilege of extreme freedom of choice.

Yet, not less than two blocks from me a couple dozen people are braving a cold and rainy holiday in a tent city set up in a back parking lot of a rather large Lutheran church. Their tents are screened off by a blue plastic tarp against a chain link fence on wheels so the sight of homelessness in this quiet little suburb doesn’t offend or frighten any of the privileged homeowners when we drive by on the way to drop $100 on dinner out with a friend.

I’m not writing this to be a downer on your Christmas week. I’m writing because perhaps the best gift given to me at this holiday time has been to think about what I often don’t even see, and to consider the unwitting ways I could be contributing to a problem instead of working towards a solution.

The best gift I – and you -- can give back is to really open our eyes and think about it, instead of feeling defensive, or pretending we’re not secretly judgmental when it comes to some inherited or culturally embedded thoughts about the poor.

There are many leverage points for change when a problem is systemic, and many solutions are needed, and the graphic here shows but a few. Perhaps the most helpful thing we can do, at the very least, is to shine light where individual intentions and assumptions are counterproductive. Educate ourselves, our families and friends, and most of all our politicians and corporations to see the real causes, and work for a real difference.

My thanks to ThinkProgress for the graph.

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