Sunday, January 04, 2004

On Volunteering

I have often done volunteer work. When I graduated from college, somehow I had acquired a notion it was important to give to society. It's important to pay my taxes without a quibble, and important to help make the world a better place. At the same time, I fretted over doing volunteer work that I thought ought to be paid work. I volunteered for a women's crisis line, which does have some staff, and as the staff reminded us, if it was ALL paid work, the revolutionary aspect would be lost. Instead of kindness driving the labor, it would be money.

OK, I could see that. Another place I volunteered was a family center, sort of related to Head Start, now expanded. Now here, clearly volunteers were needed because funds were finite, and this bugged me. Why does our society fund the atrocities of war and militarism, but can't make sure all families get the health care, parent training, education, food, and shelter that they need? We could pay for all these things ten times over if we didn't have the war machine guzzling all our labor's fruits. I am pissed off that my tax dollars are paying for bombers that are killing people RIGHT NOW, yet non-profit organizations struggle to provide enough meals for the needy, and must rely on donations and volunteers.

I work at the library and people volunteer there. Often the work of volunteers cuts into the work of paid union labor. We are told they're there for that extra "push", and because people love the library and want to volunteer there. That work should be done by paid labor, there's no reason we shouldn't fund our libraries to the point of gluttony. So that yes, we can hire teen interns who can get that valuable work experience while at the same time no union labor is lost. Yet even in a town that is known across America for loving its libraries, we don't have enough funds to meet with rising demand.

Now more than ever I am doing volunteer work, but I don't count the hours for "recognition" as I did at those previous non-paid jobs. Now there are certain things I see as valuable labor that should be a labor of love, such as helping to organize peace rallies, or teaching people about meditation. (It always makes me squeamish to see fees for workshops on teaching meditation.) I remember reading in an alternative newspaper that one should always get paid for writing, yet I can't imagine being paid for the gig I have for a Buddhist newsletter--reporting on Oregon Buddhist news. I do it out of love for the subject and to meet the people, and sure, it'll help my writer's resume. I also can't imagine being paid to do the networking and clerical things and meeting of people that I do as a contact for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I rather selfishly want a chapter here, so I do it.

This volunteering that builds community is essential. At my zen center, it is part of the spiritual practice to take on tasks, to help the community become larger than us individual parts. There is the idea that if you give more than your 'fair share' then there is never a lack. There is tremendous generosity to be found in selflessness, something zen is all about. Funny thing, I find that same sort of selfless generosity in the alternative sexual/ sex-positive community. On New Year's Eve I attended a Darklady party. Name the alternative sex scene, Darklady has contacts. So this is a pansexual party, friendly to all, including the shy. There's a 'play' space, and a 'dungeon', well in this case since it was a prom theme, 'detention'. There's space to socialize and meet people, space to dance, space to be a wallflower. Darklady parties have been a first encounter for many into the sex-positive world, the polyamorous world, the kinky world. Several dozen people helped to make it happen, and didn't expect to receive anything but a good time. Many of those same several dozen people came back to clean up. They put my puny cloakroom shift to shame, in the generosity department.

Here's the thought I'm beginning to form then: volunteerism is essential when it comes to matters of selflessness. Building community. Revolutionizing community. It's not about the money, it's about the greater good, and it;s about friendship. The women's crisis line folks were right: we weren't just there to help people in crisis, we were there to help people in crisis realize a different world is possible. Sometimes people joke about the Church of Darklady (who loves to mess with churchy types), but joke aside they refer to a better sex-positive pan-sexual world. With this type of volunteer work, society is changed, people are changed. Helping out at the soup kitchen is compassionate, but it doesn't change the person or society. It's simply needed, and it should be paid. Revolution on the other hand, when has it not been tainted by money?

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