Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nina Eliasoph's "Making Volunteers"

Nina Eliasoph is associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Avoiding Politics: Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Making Volunteers brings us into an evening meeting of youth volunteers. The adults who had set up this youth group are hoping that volunteering will “empower” the teens. It’s a terrific goal, but it sometimes works in ways that are better than the stated goals, and often goes awry.

This youth group is an example of what the book names “Empowerment Projects:” organizations that blend private, public, or nonprofit funds, with a mantra you’ve no doubt heard a hundred times: “participatory, open, innovative, multicultural, grassroots, local, comfortable, intimate, and transparent.” All these missions are worthy, but when they collide with one another, they transform (for example, can you be “innovative” and “comfortable” at the same time? “Open” and “intimate?”) When we say “voluntary associations” or “social service agencies,” we’re usually imagining these semi-voluntary, semi-government organizations whose refrain is Empowerment Talk. More and more prevalent since the 70’s, all over the world, they’re transforming volunteer work and government, simultaneously.

In this scene, I am sitting in a circle of fold-up chairs in a gym, with the teens and the adult organizers, while they plan a series of charitable visits to a children’s hospital. A girl in shredded, black tights keeps squirming and flirting and making jokes, with restless, erotic energy. The other kids seem much more sensible and reasonable, lacking her rebellious, impractical energy. I’m mournfully wishing that she could unleash some of her utopia energy for use in this group, and I’m simultaneously chastising myself for hanging onto an outmoded, impractical utopianism. For sociology, it’s odd to use one’s own feelings to discover bigger questions, but it works here. It me notice how these projects can domesticate the spirit.

They domesticate the spirit in ways that aren’t all bad, either. The girl turns out to be a pro-capital punishment, anti-abortion religious fanatic. Most kids in the group are not like that, and I’m not, either. So much for my inner cheerleading for utopian rebellion. Despite my qualms, I have to buck to the evidence: if the government funds projects like this, and if they’re going to be “open to all,” they can’t be too hotly partisan, and that's okay, though the adult organizers might think otherwise, since among their many missions is a fervent hope to cultivate teens’ hot passion and political engagement. Such pro’s and con’s abound in Empowerment Projects.

Here's page 99:
...asking teens to take themselves as the objects of knowledge, not the inspired sources of it; to treat themselves as members of a social category, not just to draw on their own unique personal experience; to value knowledge, not just inspiration. Could it work here, in a program like this? It is hard to imagine how, without making a big change in the program’s design.

Her approach had problems. When Laura asked about their direct experience, they responded that they learned better in English. She did not like that answer and ignored them, giving them impersonal, large-scale data, instead—a fine, deft move if she were in a debate club or social studies class, in which participants should presume that no single individual’s impressions give the whole picture. In a program like this, there was no time or will to investigate both sides, though both sides had good research to support them.9 Since Laura’s lesson was only one-sided, it was just another lesson in ignoring disagreement.

An even more perilous alternative to political avoidance appeared in some meetings of the Regional YEP. I was craving the gritty texture of youthful rebelliousness, and feeling forlorn that these fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-olds seemed so tame, decent, docile, methodical, and practical, with all their attention directed to planning and budgets. One evening, a rebellious-seeming teen came to the Regional YEP, bristling with impossible, passionate, almost erotic urgency. I watched her squirm, giggle, and whisper in her molded plastic chair and her ripped black tights. Secretly, I felt relieved.

Then, noticing that the other, more dedicated youth volunteers were glaring at her, I silently chastised myself for feeling charmed. Trying to emulate the serious teens’ responsible, adult-like internal demeanor, I sternly reprimanded myself, writing in my field notes later, “I really need to grow up! ... The other kids (the non-utopian ones) are so wholesome, so sensible, they really will do good realistic things. Who needs the other kind—the dreamy rebellious ones? They’re just ‘impossible.’ Forget about poetic, esthetic, impossible ideals.”

When I chatted with the rebellious girl, Meghan, during the meeting’s break, my initial delight and subsequent chagrin now turned into confusion. It turned out that she was very passionate regarding three issues: she was a born-again Christian, against legal abortion, and very much in favor of the death penalty. I personally disagreed with her positions, and yet was still a bit relieved to see a teenager acting as passionately as I imagined a teenager should act. Though I was still charmed that at least she had strong opinions, I could see that dealing with Meghan’s vehemence made other youth volunteers uneasy. VJ, Bonita, and I had been
talking, when Meghan and her friend Traci ran up, obviously trying to flirt with VJ by talking about a topic they knew he enjoyed: the recent...
Learn more about Making Volunteers at the Princeton University Press website.

Writers Read: Nina Eliasoph.

--Marshal Zeringue