Success Story: Volunteers Bridging the Class Divide

Sydney Bridge


It looked like a set up for failure:  White, middle class volunteers driving into a low income neighborhood from outside to “help out.”  Beyond simply helping, the group wanted to deepen their connections with their neighbor in the Park community, a low income neighborhood of mostly African-American, Hmong, Vietnamese and Spanish speaking Central Americans.  Their goal was not just to “help” the community, but to make enduring connections.  Sociologist Robert Putnam calls this building “social capital” by building bridges across race and class. 

So here came this group of well-intentioned, professionally educated, highly resourced church folk.  Their only diversity consisted of the fact that they came from different congregations—Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian and the Society of Friends.  They drove into the Park Neighborhood Center once a month to meet with Kendra, a social worker, to receive their volunteer assignments and report on what they did last month.  Paul Lichterman, a sociologist, studied the Park Cluster as a participant-observer.   (Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions, Princeton Univ. Press, 2005, 171-215)

Initially the Park Cluster had all them marks of a “plug-in volunteer” style of group.  Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist, has studied American volunteers and noticed a definite pattern.  Americans prefer a “plug-in style” of volunteering:  individuals receive a short-term, carry out their assigned tasks, and report on their results.  Volunteers appreciate that it fits into their busy schedules.  With only a few hours commitment, they can experience the satisfaction of having “helped out.”  Professional service organization prefer this as well because it’s easier for them:  the staff create “slots” for volunteers to fill and tasks to complete, which can then be quantified and reported to funders (p. 66-67)

The only problem is the “plug-in” style of volunteering is the lost opportunity to create enduring connections between middle class volunteers and their low-income neighbors. Yet according to Wuthnow, this “task oriented, short-term, plug-in style of volunteering. . . has become nearly synonymous with volunteering in the United States (66).”   Unfortunately, “plug in volunteering” offers little opportunity for bridge building across racial and class divides.

For its first year, the Park Cluster group operated as a “plug-in volunteer” style of group.  Members drove into the Park neighborhood to get their volunteer assignments from Kendra, the social worker.  Sometimes it was setting up party tables, picking up food donations from grocery stores, collecting donated food from their churches, serving meals or tutoring youth.  Kendra, a social worker at the center, saw the group as a place to recruit volunteers.  Meetings were business-like, with members reporting on the tasks that had been accomplished.

But over time, the group’s style of operating began to change.  Instead of just receiving assignments, volunteers began to pepper Kendra with questions about why the community was so poor and services so few.  Members began spending less time talking about the tasks they accomplished and more about the neighborhoods they were getting to know.  The volunteers became curious about what the institutions that held the community together—the neighborhood center and other helping agencies, the stores, the schools, the banks, the churches.  They spoke less generally about a community in need and more about the neighborhood’s remarkable diversity of black, Vietnamese, Hmong, Latino and white residents.   Rather than rely on the social worker, volunteers developed the own “social map” of the community.  Ned talked about all the different thrift shops and Mary knew all about the local elementary schools and could tell the group which ones had congregations and synagogues nearby, which might be approached in the future to sponsor tutoring programs. 

The Park group’s activities began look less like “short-term tasks” and more like small  “community development projects” which focused on strengthening the existing assets of the community, not bringing in help from outside.  For example, when the group heard about residents who were in danger of losing their apartments they decided that, rather than reinvent the wheel, they would strengthen a local “eviction prevention fund” by collecting funding from their member congregations.  The most significant example:  the group decided to pool funds from their member congregations in order to cosponsor a parish nurse who would serve community members with health care needs.  This decision proved to be a turning point. 

Nine months after the Park cluster began, at a critical meeting just before the parish nurse was hired, Betty pointed out that the group had changed.  It no longer functioned as “a conduit for volunteers” because they were being received as “partners of the community.”  Given their recognition that their lives were privileged and Park community was marginalized with fewer opportunities, this change was remarkable.

By the time Lichterman ended his sociological study at the end of a year, the group had begun inviting neighbors to get involved with members, and one of them became the facilitator.

What happened?  What went right?

  1. They enlisted specialists to understand the community.  Many volunteers fail to learn because they look at the individual needs of the person being helped without considering the social systems in place that contribute to poverty. 
  2. Volunteers focused not only on interpersonal relationships in their group conversations, but spoke of institutions in the neighborhood—the schools, grocery stores, churches, police department—and how this affected people’s lives.
  3. Instead of focusing only on tasks accomplished, the group set aside more and more time to wonder aloud about their relationships with the people served.  When they were perplexed by situations, they helped one another deepen their understanding.  This reduced frustration and gave the volunteers strength over time.  It also allowed them to strengthen connections with the community
  4. Instead of talking in general about a “community in need,” they talk explicitly about racial inequality, a socially marginalized community, and the specific needs of the various races and ethnicities in the Park neighborhood.  This also contributed to enduring connections.
  5. They described their work as building a partnership between equals, not a resource bank for volunteer tasks.
  6. As they gained confidence as a group, they began inviting community members to fully participate in their decision making.  



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