Democracy and Volunteering
In this staff blog, Marta and George, IAVE’s Co-Directors for Networks and Convenings, shares with us their recent experience at the Centre for European Volunteering’s (CEV) Autumn Volunteering Congress in Berlin, the 2021 European Volunteering Capital. They reflect on the inspiring speech from Sawsan Chebli, the Berlin Secretary for Active Citizenship and International Relations, which advocates for the simple and profound view that volunteering needs democracy, and democracy needs volunteering. Read their blog to learn more about their experience below. Don’t forget to leave a comment on the blog and share your thoughts on this topic.
By George Thomson, Co-Director, Networks and Convenings, IAVE
My participation this September at the Centre for European Volunteering (CEV) General Assembly in Berlin and European Volunteering Capital study group was an enormous privilege after all the restrictions of COVID-19.
Berlin itself is a remarkably chilled place, and easy to find one’s way. Like other great cities, there’s an inner confidence and assurance that doesn’t need to be stated. A highly multi-cultural and diverse capital which is friendly and welcoming.
Of course, Nazi history remains a shadow, and I was very moved by the ways in which the city faces up to its past, confronts its horrors, and honors victims. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold is one such endeavor. It’s an incredible and unforgettable experience to visit and be engulfed by. At first you don’t realize its ability to release all of one’s senses and discover a deep and personal connection with the horror of such enormity that might otherwise be impossible to engage with. I’m enormously impressed by the scale and impact of it, in what was the most difficult task imaginable.
Perhaps this leads naturally to the volunteering leadership learning and main takeaway for me.
Sawsan Chebli a senior Berlin politician spoke to both the General Assembly and the European Volunteer Capital study group. Sawsan is the Secretary for Active Citizenship and International Relations. She stated, with crystal clarity, the precious value of democracy, the consequences of anti-democracy evidenced in Germany’s past, and the current democratic threats across the world. She said; “Democracy needs volunteering, and volunteering needs democracy”. Seven words that I’d never heard expressed before. Profoundly important words in how we think about our role as volunteer leaders. We are passionate about the importance of volunteering and share wonderful stories about volunteers – the values of free will, not for financial gain, and benefitting the common good. Should we add the value that volunteering needs democracy?
Might we reframe our way of thinking about volunteering, more in terms of participative democracy? Where the relationships between people, their associations and contexts give primary meaning to volunteering at its core? Where transactional thinking about hours given, saved costs, CV’s and so on, are secondary?
I’m often struck in listening to volunteer stories about the deeper meaning that individuals and groups discover through volunteering action. They learn about the needs of others, build understanding about systems, and collectively create a political take on the world. The drive to act and get things done, often dealing with very challenging circumstances, is humbling to witness.
It’s often a story of the common folk. Of commoners, coming together in common purpose for the common good. Democracy is based on the power of the common people, and whilst we over-depend on representative democracy mindsets, there’s an increasing awareness that the health of democracy is founded on voluntary participation. It’s becoming the common view that we cannot meet the needs of people, planet, and nature without the interaction of citizens and States in the hard graft towards shared goals and public value.
Thank you Sawsan Chebli and Berlin European Volunteering Capital 2021 for helping me realize this.
By Marta Bruschi, Co-Director, Networks and Convenings, IAVE
In September, together with my dear colleague George, I traveled for the first time since pandemic to Berlin, for the Centre for European Volunteering (CEV) conference in Berlin. Among our conversations one topic dominated, which was largely was inspired by Swanson Chabli.
She indirectly raised a couple of important questions that stuck to me that day: How do we make sure that democracy stays strong in the age where populistic, right-wing parties are taking the spotlight? How do we ensure that people make their own choices and are not manipulated or forced to engage? What does it take to develop the willingness in people to engage in societies and be actively part of it?
I have been volunteering for years in my local community in northeast London. Before I started, I had a very different perception about what I will take from the experience and what I will give myself. Now I see that this was not solemnly about helping people but also connecting to different generations and nationalities, understanding the culture and most importantly, appreciating the POWER OF PEOPLE – of US, of ME – influencing how we want to live, in a friendly and safe community. I volunteer because I have the freedom to do so – it is my choice. It is our community choice to gather and be able to participate in the decision-making process. It is on the local level but the decisions are made by us, for us and others living in the community, and it’s about having the OPPORTUNITY to decide. This sounds almost banal, but in reality, such engagement brings important questions to light: How do I contribute to the society? What choice do I have as the citizen? What is my responsibility to others in society and what opportunities do I have to contribute to building a better society?
Volunteering brings people together – that is self-evident – but it makes people like myself reflect about the value of inclusive society and the role you, I and others play. Those reflections can lead to bigger awareness and impactful changes.
Is democracy the condition for volunteerism to thrive or is volunteering one of the elements that contributes to building a stable democracy? Is democracy the pulse of volunteerism or is it the other way around? Let the dialogue begin!