Removing class barriers to heritage volunteering

On 7 December 2022, we hosted a half-day event about how to increase the socioeconomic diversity of heritage volunteer programmes.

The event featured speakers from Museum As Muck, Volunteer Scotland, Volunteering Matters, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Scottish Civic Trust.

Our speakers gave the following tips for making volunteering more accessible, relevant and rewarding for working class people:
Define what “working class” means

The term “working class” can mean different things to different people. Because of the contested nature of the term, it can be helpful when having conversations about class to define what you mean by “working class”.

Through consultation with their network of working class heritage people, Museum As Muck has chosen to use “working class” when talking about people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. By low socioeconomic backgrounds, they mean people who have a low amount of economic (how much money you have), social (who you know) and cultural (what you know) privilege. For more information about this definition of working class, check out French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on class.

Take intersectionality into account

Marginalised people, or those excluded from economic, social and cultural positions of power, are more likely to be working class. This is because exclusion or discrimination based on one characteristic (such as sexuality, gender, sex, religion, race, disability) often results in and/or reinforces other socioeconomic barriers, such as having lower paying jobs, lacking the connections to network and not having formal qualifications.

This means that by focussing on recruiting and supporting more working class people to volunteer, you will also be diversifying your volunteer programme to include more people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Record the class backgrounds of your volunteers

Knowledge is power! Asking your volunteers to anonymously answer questions about their demographic backgrounds can help you understand which people and communities cannot or have not engaged with your volunteer programme. This data can also be used internally to advocate for inclusion training or increased outreach and engagement budgets.

Studies have shown that the most effective measure to look at when asking people about class backgrounds is: “At the age of 14, what did the main earner in your household do for a profession?”. Volunteer organisers may consider adding this question to any information they collect about their volunteers.

It is important to note that class or socioeconomic background isn’t a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010), and so in many cases is not included in organisations’ equalities monitoring or considered a priority for audience diversification. However, by collecting this data and reporting it to funding bodies where possible, volunteer organisers can advocate for greater focus to be paid to class diversity in addition to other types of marginalisation.

Identify and remove barriers to working class people’s participation

Many policies and practices of the heritage sector exclude working class people. We’ve outlined a few of the main ones below, but be sure to watch the event recording for a longer discussion of barriers and how to address them!

  1. Unpaid expenses: Volunteers often have to pay travel expenses in order to get on-site. This can be very challenging for people who make or have little money. To remove this barrier, volunteer organisers can pay expenses up-front or reimburse volunteers for their travel costs. Volunteer organisers can also consider what other costs they could cover for volunteers, such as lunch expenses, childcare and relevant technology and equipment. As explained by this guidance on volunteering and UK State Benefits from Volunteer Glasgow and Volunteer Edinburgh, volunteers that are on Universal Credit can also claim all of the above listed expenses.
  2. Unfamiliar language: The terminology used in the heritage sector can be alienating for people who may not have much experience in museums or heritage settings. To remove this barrier, volunteer organisers should clarify any specialist terms relating to history, architecture, conservation and nature. Volunteer organisers should also try to avoid acronyms (such as MYM for Make Your Mark), as these can be confusing for people hearing about organisations or projects for the first time.
  3. Assumption of shared experiences: Current heritage sector staff and volunteers are predominantly white, middle class and non-disabled. Due to these similarities, heritage staff often have had similar experiences, such as educational institutions, holiday destinations and extracurricular activities. This can make people who haven’t had these experiences feel awkward and out of place. To remove this barrier, volunteer organisers should avoid making assumptions about people’s backgrounds, making sweeping statements about commonalities in the group and cultivate an environment of valuing everyone’s experiences and contributions.
  4. Imposter syndrome: Many working class people can feel imposter syndrome, or feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. These feelings can be exacerbated by settings in which people use unfamiliar language and express unfamiliar shared experiences. Volunteer organisers can remove this barrier by normalising imposter feelings, challenging negative self-talk, regularly affirming volunteers’ efforts and worth and acknowledging the structures that have marginalised people and made them feel inadequate. For more information about supporting people with imposter syndrome, read this helpful article from the Harvard Business Review.
  5. Focus on formal qualifications: Many heritage volunteer roles specify the need for a higher education degree. Working class people are less likely to have higher education qualifications due to a need to enter the workforce and experiencing exclusion in the middle class environments of universities. To remove this barrier, volunteer organisers should review their role descriptions to consider whether a specialist degree is needed, or if the role can be done by someone with transferrable skills and lived experience.
  6. Perception of heritage as middle class: The heritage sector has historically focussed on the lives of the middle and upper classes, and the heritage sector is predominantly staffed by people from those groups. These practices have excluded working class people from representation and decision making within the heritage sector. To remove this barrier, volunteer organisers can work across their organisation to ensure that working class heritage is celebrated and showcased. They can also support working class volunteers to search and apply for heritage jobs.

View the event recording to learn more about identifying and removing class barriers to heritage volunteering.

Do some further reading

If you are interested in learning more about class and how to remove class barriers to heritage and volunteering, check out these publications:

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *