Your assumptions are keeping you from connecting.
Recently Indy celebrated a city-wide, three-day volunteer effort through a local service club. Companies and their employees volunteered for thousands of hours and completed projects of all kinds: public art in our underpassess, neighborhood sweeps, etc. I’m sure they did lots of good things. [I’m not affiliated with this group in any way and will share my limited interaction below.]
The piece of the project I witnesssed deeply disturbed me.
My neighbor texted that volunteers were coming down my street installing these alarms. How great!
First and foremost: WHAT AN AWESOME THING, especially in my neighborhood. Throughout the winter, we’ll consistently hear fire trucks in the middle of night because someone’s home has caught fire. In low-income neighborhoods it is usually the result of two situations: faulty electrical or some type of space heater has tipped over onto fabric. In homes where the gas or electric have been turned off from lack of payment, my neighbors will find creative ways to keep warm.
But here’s where it got weird. I went out to meet the 6 or 8 people coming down the street and noticed a police cruiser sitting in front of my house. As I was chatting with a volunteer he said two things that seemed disrespectful. 1) “I’m so surprised no one is home during the day.” (It was a weekday morning.) and 2) “The police are escorting us so we have more legitimacy.”
[Insert my confused face, where one eyebrow goes up and my head goes to the side.]
These folks clearly had no clue where they were.
When they asked me if I needed smoke alarms, I mentioned it’d be nice to have some new ones because ours are set to expire next year. I would need 5. They said they had to come in the house to see them. Okay, I can do that. Once inside, another volunteer then hops on the ladder and says they have to test them and educate me on how they work. Stop the train. WWWhhhaaattt??
These volunteers assumed at least three things in half of a second: the smoke alarms didn’t work; I didn’t know how to test or use them; and that they could come in my house and install new ones without first describing what they’re doing. They didn’t ask any questions about my situation or my understanding of smoke detectors.
Nevermind that we had just tested them, switched out batteries ourselves, and have renovated our entire home…I think we got smoke alarms covered. Also, our dog has some kind of PTSD flashback when they go off, so we try to limit his emotional scarring by not doing it when he’s in the house.
Know where you’re going.
I can’t help but think that the organizers of this project and the volunteers had a whole set of assumptions about my neighborhood. They may have viewed this event as a transaction: install smoke alarms for poor people. Instead, they could have been welcomed into our neighborhood. Asking to enter someone’s home requires trust and communication.
- Was the police escort really for legitimacy or for something else? Many families I know wouldn’t welcome police presence as a sign of trust. Trust is key when requesting to enter someone’s home. It seems to me the police escort was about their safety.
- “Poor” equals “not working.” My neighborhood is full of families who work … low-paying jobs…during the day. I’ve seen hotel maids (in their Hilton uniforms) dutifully catching the bus every morning at 6:45 a.m. Many construction workers leave before sunrise to build roofs in the suburbs or wherever they can get a job. Janitors at hospitals, retail clerks, fast food workers work all hours of the day to scrape together their income.
- A quick drive down several streets would show you the number of Hispanic families who live here, not to mention the neighborhood Catholic Church that has two Spanish-language masses where there are more attendees than seats. If you wanted to have an impact with as many families as possible, a volunteer who spoke Spanish and marketing materials in Spanish are crucial. They had neither.
- Our neighborhood association or community development organization weren’t communicated with prior to the event. The two primary organizations doing work in our neighborhood weren’t invited into the planning. Our neighborhood association could have helped communicate prior to the event to get more participation. This is just so weird to me.
No doubt: the simple goal of providing smoke alarms is a great one. In order to do that the volunteers needed to enter into people’s homes. This is sacred ground. Being invited in after having a full understanding of the volunteers’ purpose is crucial.
On the deepest level that’s why we serve and volunteer: to connect with something sacred. We’re all striving for connection; we’re humans, that’s how we’re wired. When we interact with others through something meaningful, we feel connected.
We can allow our volunteer experiences to be reduced to mere transactions, or we can strive for depth and connection.
This interaction helped me better understand my own assumptions when volunteering. They came in with an agenda, and I could feel the effects of it. I’m sure my neighbors did too. Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself since then:
- What am I assuming before coming into a situation?
- What do I think I need to “fix” when volunteering?
- If I truly believe all people are creative, resourceful, and don’t need my “fixing,” where do I need to check myself before I wreck a relationship?
With all due respect to Ice Cube today.