Recognising racism in volunteer engagement

Faiza Venzant, Executive Director of the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration (CCVA), talked with our Volunteer Organisers Network about how to identify and dismantle racism in volunteer engagement.
Faiza gave the following tips for recognising racism for volunteer engagement:
Identify your privilege

Recognising racism in volunteer engagement starts with individual work and reflection. Thinking through our various identities helps us understand contexts in which we hold power and privilege, and other contexts in which we are marginalised or hold less or little power. Being aware of our privilege is key to being able to dismantle power imbalances and inequality.

For example, identities that have varying and intersecting levels of power within society include race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, biological sex, class, religious affiliation, citizenship status, language, education level, martial status, disability and more. To help visualise your multiple identities and the relative power they hold in society, you can complete a “Power Flower” activity.

Familiarise yourself with terms related to anti-racism

Oftentimes discussions about anti-racism and other social justice issues use terms like white supremacy, diversity, marginalisation, equity, inclusion, oppression, privilege, equality and micro-aggressions. It can be helpful to take a bit of time to familiarise yourself with these terms.

White supremacy is a system of characteristics and ways in which society operates that benefits people who are white. Understanding white supremacy culture helps people see how things are structured to benefit and keep white people in power. This knowledge can then be used to disrupt and dismantle racism.

For further definitions of terms related to anti-racism, you can reference the Anti-Racist Educator’s glossary, National Museum for World Cultures’ Words Matter: An Unfinished Guide to Word Choices in the Cultural Sector and Guidance on non-discriminatory language for cultural heritage professionals by Carissa Chew.

Think critically about culture

Culture is more than a set of traditions, behaviours, languages, songs, belief systems, stories and ways of being that characterise a group of people (often within a place). Dominant cultural norms represent the opinions, values and attitudes of the group(s) of people in power. In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun explain culture as: “powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. [Cultural norms] are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group.”

Identify white supremacy culture within volunteerism

White supremacy culture influences many parts of society, including volunteerism. Faiza highlighted three characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in the volunteerism – quantity over quality, individualism and paternalism – and suggested how to make volunteer programmes more inclusive.

Quantity over quality. White supremacy culture centres the organisation and doesn’t focus on the experience of the community being served. In volunteerism, this shows up as measuring success only or predominantly through number of volunteers hours and number of volunteers, or by attributing a financial value to number of volunteer hours worked. These metrics don’t indicate the quality of the volunteers’ experiences, the community’s experience in engaging with volunteers or if the volunteer programme has made a meaningful impact on volunteers or communities.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Emphasise inputs in addition to outputs: Highlight all of the important work that you do to engage volunteers, such as building relationships with community members and supporting volunteer wellbeing. This helps to centre community and volunteer experiences in reporting and highlights the breadth and value of the work you do as a volunteer organiser.
  • Link qualitative data to organisational values: Many organisations have mission statements, organisational values or project outcomes tied to inclusion and wellbeing impacts, so you can advocate for more resources for your volunteer programme or advocate for changes within your volunteer programme by tying your work to those larger missions, values and outcomes.

Individualism. White supremacy culture celebrates individual contributions over collaboration and community impact. In volunteerism, this shows up as awards given to individual volunteers for the number of hours served, which are easier to achieve for those who have more disposable income and free time and for whom volunteerism is easier to access. It also shows up in the practise of naming things after people, such as awards, buildings, benches, rooms, etc. Oftentimes these things are named after donors or people for whom volunteerism is easier to access. Also, this practise of naming things after people can dissuade those whose cultural norm is anonymous giving from engaging with your organisation or joining your volunteer programme. For example, in Muslim culture, people focus on the impact of giving rather than the generosity of the giver.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Celebrate collaboration: Brainstorm how you could recognise efforts from groups of volunteers, rather than singling out individual volunteers for their achievements, and highlight team behaviours rather than leadership behaviours.
  • Award people for demonstrating organisational values: Instead of celebrating people who have the most time or money to give, recognise people who have the most meaningful impact on the community that you serve.

Paternalism. White supremacy culture sees marginalised people as needing intervention and not able to help themselves. In volunteerism, this shows up as volunteers being seen as “superheroes” who save the community, and the community is not celebrated or centred for their efforts. It also shows up when organisations make decisions for the community and who will volunteer for and with them without their input.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Involve and centre the community in your work: Bring the community into all of your processes and ask them if they see themselves reflected in the work you do. When writing volunteer roles, interview questions, policies and training materials, consider working with a marginalised person or an organisation representing marginalised people to review your language.
  • See your community and target audiences from an asset-based perspective: Emphasise the strengths and benefits they can bring to the organisation, rather than seeing them as being “saved” or “helped” by your volunteer programme.
Take your time

Building trust and relationships with new volunteers and communities and people is a marathon, not a sprint! Take the time to do self-reflection, to understand your privileges and biases and to learn more about communities and people that you don’t have proximity to.

Accept that mistakes will happen

In trying to be more inclusive, people may make a mistake and do or say the wrong thing. It’s better to do the wrong thing, learn from it and keep trying than to not try at all!

Learn from other heritage volunteer organisers

We’re all in this together! If you liked this blog and watched the event recording and are keen for more information, you can sign up to Make Your Mark to access a Scotland-wide heritage volunteer organisers network. Joining Make Your Mark will also subscribe you to a monthly e-newsletter with top tips for heritage volunteer organisers. Signing up is free and easy – just fill out this short form.

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