Many young people aren’t able to find meaningful volunteering
Imagine seeing this ad for a volunteer position: “Wanted: youth volunteers to give out free lunches at the local community center to families and homeless individuals.” You think it sounds like a great opportunity and a meaningful way to give back to your society! But then you read the fine print below and it says, “Volunteers from more affluent neighbourhoods will work upfront with customers, volunteers from poorer neighbourhoods will do menial tasks in the back.” Most likely, you’d be shocked and upset, questioning why there’s a difference in the volunteer experience between high- and low-income youth within the same organization. While we don’t usually see ads as explicit as this in their expression of blatant inequities in volunteering between high- and low-income youth, it’s a very real, very hidden truth that many young people face today.
Volunteering is Mandatory in Ontario, but Is It Equal?
Volunteering is a great way for students to learn new skills while supporting and strengthening their communities. Throughout Canada, volunteerism is embedded in policy; most governments require that high school students meet certain quotas in order to graduate. In Ontario, all high school students are expected to complete at least 40 hours of volunteer community service in line with the Ontario Secondary Schools, Grades 9 to 12, Program and Diploma Requirements, 1999 (OSS). However, not every young person has the same opportunities when it comes to volunteering, and these differences often depend on whether youth come from a high- or low-income neighbourhood.
Kaylan Horner Schwarz’s Masters thesis on the mandated community involvement activities finds that,
“[w]hile the option for students to self-select their community involvement placements may appear to accommodate diverse students’ needs, some students’ choices may be limited by the reach of their social networks, as well as barriers such as lack of time and access to transportation.”
Thus, the quality of volunteer placements is dependent on a young person’s social and economic circumstances, which in turn has profound effects on how likely they are to volunteer again.
Horner Schwarz’s research on this topic makes several important conclusions, namely that:
- the best volunteer opportunities were those that were considered “meaningful” by the volunteers,
- high-income youth have greater access to meaningful opportunities, and
- low-income youth are very limited in their access to meaningful opportunities.
We Spoke With Hundreds of Youth From Ontario
Suppose you found an ad for a movie theater in a low-income neighborhood who was looking for young volunteers to support their staff during a movie night program. Their job was to invite people in, play the movie and control its settings (volume, brightness, etc.). On paper, this sounds like a great opportunity for youth to get involved in their community and engage with different people! However, the night doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, and you notice that:
- There is significant discontent among the youth, even though they started off enthusiastic about the volunteer experience. 17-year old Charlie said, “Volunteering will be a great way to develop job-related skills in a workplace setting,” while 15-year old Tamara said, “I have so many skills I want to contribute. I’m really excited.” But as the night progresses, 16-year old Darshan tells you, “I was asked to sit at a registration table for an event. People would come, put their name on a paper, and that’s it. I was on snapchat most of the time.” 15-year old Alex then says, when trying to add to the integrity of the event, this happened: “I asked if I could take photos of the program so I could build my portfolio. But they hired some hack instead. Dude didn’t even know how to angle or light his shots properly. I’ve got 3 million Instagram followers. Yeah, I’m only 15, but so what? I know how to take amazing photos.”
- Ultimately, poor experiences like this one cause 46% of low-income youth to forge or exaggerate their recorded volunteer hours, while only 5% of high-income volunteers do the same. The disparities and inequities are apparent here.
- Moreover, less than 12% of low-income youth want to do more than their 40 hours of volunteer work, as they become discouraged and disengaged.
What Are Organizations Doing Wrong?
The problem here is that organizations will give low-income youth positions that are uninspired, tedious, unacknowledging of their skills/abilities, or degrading because they don’t view them as having the same potential as high-income youth. The fault does not lie with young people themselves, but with the organizations and societies at large.
Many organizations don’t see the problems they perpetuate when they ignore the vast skillsets that low-income youth have. Here’s an example: say you found an advertisement for a youth volunteer opportunity in an office building, which would require office administration skills such as filing and organizing documents. When you ask the organizations if they see this opportunity as meaningful, they say yes! They argue it would improve their volunteers’ ability to organize, problem solve, exhibit patience, and develop their trial and error skills, as doing office work can be difficult for young people. But in reality, you note that this opportunity really doesn’t build on the diverse abilities that young volunteers have, but instead simply asks them to move and shred papers or organize filing cabinets. In your experience, young people in low-income neighbourhoods today don’t find this sort of thing meaningful, but would rather utilize and build on their skills in technology, communication, and social media.
Herein lies the problem. When organizations treat low-income youth as though they have nothing meaningful to bring to society, they assign them non-meaningful tasks. In turn, this discourages them from the volunteer process and may stop them from engaging in community activities once they’ve reached the mandated 40 hours. Alternatively, they may not even complete the hours and would just forge the volunteer forms they need to graduate. (We’ve learned from youth that there are no shortage of apps that can photoshop images quite easily). This can then impact their future opportunities, since completing more than 40 hours may help attain scholarships, build their resume, extend their networks and broaden their horizons. Here, we can see that the problematic ways in which society views low-income youth actually creates a harmful cycle for these young people.
What can we do to change it?
As Horner Schwarz concludes, the mere existence of a policy which requires the same amount of community involvement for all high school students does not ensure that these young people have equitable access to meaningful experiences. Therefore, while it may seem like Ontario’s youth stand on an equal playing field when it comes to volunteering, these young people aren’t even playing the same sport. Thus, we must find ways to provide low-income youth with equally meaningful volunteer opportunities as their high-income peers.
At Youth Empowering Parents (YEP), our programs aim to engage young people, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, to volunteer in meaningful ways that actually utilize the unique skills and abilities that contemporary youth bring to the table. This includes giving lessons on English, social media, art, music, technology, dance, and more to adult learners. No training is required to get involved, since lengthy training programs tend to cause young people to lose interest. We’ve found that 89% of all youth who hear about our programs express interest in the activities, while 93% of our participants stay longer than 6 months. Our volunteers average about 68 hours in total when volunteering with YEP, thus exceeding their mandated 40 hours.
We asked some of our youth volunteers about their experiences. Christine expressed a common sentiment among many of our volunteers, stating, “I liked that it felt as though I was giving back to the community and that I was able to do it using skills that adults usually don’t think young people like myself have. It’s just nice to actually feel appreciated while volunteering.”
Another frequent answer we got was that the youth at YEP wanted to have an impact on the people they volunteer with. Fatima told us, “I feel like I’m making a difference here. I’ve volunteered with other organizations in the past, but I left because I didn’t feel like what I was doing had any effect. I’d sit around all day answering phones or doing stuff that no one else wanted to do.” When asked what was different about her experiences at YEP, she said,
“Here, they’ve given me responsibility and tasks that make me feel like I’ve achieved something, instead of just doing cheap labor. I’m thankful for that opportunity.”
Our methods are in line with the findings of other scholars who argue that low-income volunteers can build and leverage their cultural and social assets in order to improve their lives, experiences, and support in their communities.
It’s time that all youth are seen as capable societal actors with diverse expertise, and that this is reflected in the volunteer opportunities they’re offered. It’s been over 20 years since the requirement of 40 hours of volunteer community service was implemented in Ontario, and yet we remain in a state of inequity. Harmful cycles that disadvantage low-income youth must end, and we must be the generation who stops it.
Join Youth Empowering Parents on February 15, 2021 for a virtual event titled “Re-thinking the capabilities of children: What happens when students become teachers?” Sign up by visiting https://yepeducation.eventbrite.com/