Sunday, April 19, 2015

On Volunteering

I have been a stay at home mum for fifteen years. I have been on P&Cs (my tenth year at primary school), been on the management committee for the local community centre, been on the committee for the preschool and the child care centre, written newsletters, made cookbooks, worked at uniform shop, mended costumes, approached business for donations for a Trivia Night, read with students, taught ethics, helped with school sport and fetes and made crafts, baked, started a local babysitting club, visited a local nursing home, been active in causes I support including being involved in a political party, in contributing to feminist and atheist causes, run bookgroups, and helped organise Mamapalooza festivals (supporting and promoting mothers in the creative arts). Other volunteers run sporting clubs, band committees, charities and campaign for change.

Stay at home mothers volunteer at school and in the community. (Of course, other parents do too - bear with me.) Some do this to boost their resumes. Some do it to take a break from their families. Some do it to socialise. Some do it to be taken seriously amongst adults.

Volunteering can be beneficial to women at home with kids, but it can also turn into a double edged sword. Being away from the family in the evenings may cause resentment amongst the fathers (or co-parent) who don’t want the responsibility of cleaning up after dinner and putting children to bed. Voluntary work can put a strain on family relationships in the same way that paid work does. It means the parent is thinking of other things besides being with children and running the household. I’m not suggesting women should always be thinking about their care work in the home - I’m not. I’m just saying volunteer work is work that takes time and thought. I certainly spent a lot of time on the phone at home when I was president of the local community centre (even though I, and other members of the executive, didn't live in that community).

Part of the problem is that women’s work is not valued. A woman’s voluntary work may be building social capital, but it doesn’t bring in money. When women are doing voluntary work they are giving it away for free. Their skills aren’t acknowledged. They are working in a parallel, alternate economy. Just as child-care workers are underpaid because mothers do similar work for free, so it is in fundraising and organising for social groups.

What does this mean for feminist mothering? It means that women are contributing to the bigger community when they may not otherwise have a voice. But it also means that women, by doing voluntary work, and fulfilling their needs that might otherwise be fulfilled by paid work but without being paid, creates a problem. It has longterm implications for a woman’s lifetime income. It may mean paying rent out of her pension when she is older since she doesn’t earn an income to buy property and hasn’t worked long enough to accumulate superannuation. It means depending on a partner for economic security and, perhaps, compromising personal happiness in her relationship due to economic factors.

What does it mean in terms of feminism and social change? Volunteering has always been the way to make change happen. None of the great change movements would have happened without people volunteering their time and skills to make change happen. But there is a personal cost. It would probably be more effective to make change happen whilst employed and climbing the career ladder to hold positions of authority.

For me, volunteering has meant connection with people in my community. This is something that is important to me for its own sake, but has had unexpected consequences. When I started the babysitting club in 2004 I could not have foreseen how the members of that club would rally around by creating a dinner roster for my family when I was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012.

Enforced volunteering is still used by government for people who are long term unemployed. What were once government services are now privatised and run by church groups. These church groups enforce the rule that people who have been unemployed for a year need to volunteer for fifteen hours a week in order to stay on Centrelink benefits. Guess where they ask people to volunteer? At their church run charities. Obviously, this is a rort and unethical. Does my fifteen years of volunteering count? No it doesn’t.

When the UK introduced austerity measures a few years ago and shut down community programs for people in need, David Cameron announced that more people would have to do more volunteering the fill the gaps. No.That's too much to ask of people who already carers.

What I’m seeing now is volunteer burnout. Schools and community groups are set up to run on the availability of volunteers. Those volunteers are often no longer available, or, if available, concentrating on one group and not others. You can’t do everything. Just as school canteens were once run by volunteers but are now outsourced to businesses, other services are being outsourced, and maybe they should be. Schools can now employ people to run the uniform shop, or to apply for grants. These are jobs that suit people who would otherwise invest their time and skills without reward. What I’m seeing is the constant call for volunteers in all sorts of community groups. I really can’t do everything, and I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve done plenty of work for free and now I need to be paid.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone was expected to have a separate volunteering resume? Could this be recognised by government and contribute towards superannuation in some way? Wouldn’t it be good if people asked the question ‘where do you volunteer?’ as a matter of course rather than the usual status defining questions. Is there more of a culture of volunteering in countries where
work/life/family balance is more of a given. Wouldn’t it be healthy for everyone to contribute to community efforts. I see an impossible expectation placed on parents of school aged children. Wouldn’t it be good if people without care responsibilities could help out? Wouldn't it be good if volunteering gained credit that counted towards superannuation, or some other system of economics that counts in a capitalist society. Otherwise, we need to just wind everything down.

I’m turning the focus of my voluntary work to bigger issues. If we had proper funding and resourcing of services that matter, we would not need so much volunteering. You might remember the t shirt that went something like  ‘If only the government funded schools properly and had a cake stall to buy fighter jets’.* Well I’m now concentrating on policy and politics. That’s where it’s at. 

I'm certainly not helping raise funds for bands to go on overseas trips.

*tea towel here

1 comment:

sister outlaws said...

Yikes! Yes! Although I've just volunteered to co-coordinate the fete and am "applying" for a volunteer position at the I. W. D.A. You are so right. The other fete co ordinate struggled to get her partner to take her commitment seriously. He kept calling it her "hobby" and she co ordinated a fete that made $70,000 for the school! But you certainly do make some interesting points about inequality and income.