EPISODE 10: YOUTH VOLUNTEERING AND POWER: CHALLENGING THE DIVIDE BETWEEN VOLUNTEERISM AND ACTIVISM
Chris Millora, PhD, is Lecturer in Education and Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Chris research interests is in the links between youth learning/literacies and social justice, particularly in Global South contexts. X/Twitter: @chrismillora
Taibat Hussain, is a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia, and she works at the intersection of education, gender and youth empowerment through her research and advocacy. X/Twitter @aduragbataibat
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"YOUTH VOLUNTEERING AND POWER: CHALLENGING THE DIVIDE BETWEEN VOLUNTEERISM AND ACTIVISM"
Volunteering, Activism, and Power
Volunteering and activism are two forms of social action that are often distinguished from each other based on the degree to which they challenge power hierarchies. Some argue that while volunteering maintains the status quo, activism seeks to challenge it. Volunteering is often viewed as providing services, time, or resources to those considered ‘marginalised’ or ‘vulnerable,’ while activism exposes the root causes of such marginalisation and advocates for fundamental change. However, we find fault in this disjointed characterisation of these closely linked forms of social action, especially as such descriptions tend to label volunteering as ‘apolitical’ or lacking in power.
"Our research and experiences tell us that young people’s volunteer actions are potent tools not only for addressing gaps in services but also for challenging power hierarchies"
Contrary to this notion, our research and experiences tell us that young people’s volunteer actions are potent tools not only for addressing gaps in services but also for challenging power hierarchies. In Chris’ recent research, youth and student organisers utilised volunteer action to surface the inadequate responses of state actors in addressing learning loss during the pandemic. Their acts of volunteerism, such as providing school supplies to children from low-income households, became a foundation for their wider activist work. For instance, they shed light on issues related to the digital divide to exert pressure on governments and advocate for more responsive policies. On the other hand, in regions where civil society is shrinking, young people’s volunteer actions could be politicised, resulting in punitive measures like policing, surveillance, and discrimination.
Diverse Forms of Youth Organisation
We feel that it’s difficult (and perhaps unnecessary?) to place distinctions between volunteering and activism because the ways by which young people organise are becoming more and more diverse. Campaign tactics, for instance, are no longer confined to street protests. Young people creatively and skilfully utilise social media and digital platforms to amplify concerns globally — through Twitter storms, online campaigns, hashtags, and interactive online exhibits. We’ve heard of students occupying offices, participating in rent strikes, and hosting teach-ins in protest lines to counter inequitable educational policies. Many young people also express their stances through everyday acts of resistance, like opting for vegan food, favouring rail travel over flying, and supporting sustainably sourced products.
These evolving dynamics in young people’s repertoire of social actions demonstrate that volunteering and activism are merely two of numerous channels by which young people express their voices and acts of dissent. These various forms can complement one another and enhance their collective power. Many youth activists are also volunteers, and numerous youth-driven social movements rely on volunteer efforts to sustain their operations. In her experience working with young people and as a youth activist herself, Taibat has discovered the vital role that youth volunteering plays in mobilising change. Through her non-profit, Rising Child Foundation, Taibat has guided her diverse team of volunteers in executing various educational and youth-focused projects within their community. These initiatives have not only impacted the lives of the young individuals they serve but have also amplified their collective voice for change.
This enhanced influence has opened doors, enabling them to capture the attention of policymakers and key decision-makers. A notable example occurred in 2019 when Taibat authored an open letter to the Governor of her State. The Governor took notice of the letter and responded formally, making it a matter of public record. This incident illustrates how volunteerism serves as the conduit that propels activism. Volunteering is not just a starting point; it is a prerequisite for young people who are determined to instigate the change they aspire to see within their communities. Volunteering embodies a stride towards realising the transformative potential of youth activism.
Youth activism and volunteering: Shaping Just and Sustainable Futures
An overwhelming message that emerges from our research and experience is that young people are no longer interested in passively implementing a vision of social change developed by others. The youth and student climate strikes are a powerful example of young people taking matters into their own hands, no longer satisfied with the kind of unsustainable and unequal world that people in power are promoting.
Our involvement in various youth-led or youth-focused discussions in the global education agenda also points to how young people are pushing back against tokenistic means of engagement. They noted that even institutions who aim to be youth-focused fail to open up spaces for youths and students to take more central and significant roles in decision-making processes. However, some have noted efforts to integrate youth representatives in governing boards, advisory councils and steering committees. Through these channels, youths and students willingly volunteer their time and expertise to shape both local decisions and global agendas.
Against the backdrop of this increased demand for more meaningful participation, our invitation is for policymakers, practitioners and IVCOs to consider a more expanded view of the type of social change volunteers could accomplish. We see both volunteering and activism working hand-in-hand as young people shape a more just and (socially and environmentally) sustainable future.
"Our invitation is for policymakers, practitioners and IVCOs to consider a more expanded view of the type of social change volunteers could accomplish"
Watch the video interview below as the author unpacks the topic;