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Valerie Jiggetts, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program
As a sociologist-in-training, many decisions in my life are driven by a desire to make as positive a social impact as I can. When the opportunity came for me to volunteer as a coach with The Future Project (TFP) I was overjoyed, and approached this situation with the same sociological perspective and drive for social change as I have most commitments.
Class, race, and gender have informed the culture under which community service and volunteering have been shaped. Privilege in any of these areas is often an assumed component of the volunteer identity; disadvantage in any of these areas is often an assumed component of the identity of the community hosting the volunteers. As a result, the relationships between volunteers and their host community can become hierarchical and volunteers, in a blind effort to do the right thing, may adopt colonizing mentalities. These mentalities produce scenarios where volunteers enter communities that are not their own, with the assumption that they are there to fix or better their host community.
In my experience, the potential for this hierarchical and colonizing mentality is rarely challenged or even acknowledged in volunteer settings—by coordinators, in volunteer orientations, or by volunteers. This is why I was impressed when The Future Project made it clear in its volunteer application and interviews that coaches must understand that our relationship with our fellow is a mutually beneficial one, where everyone teaches, everyone learns, and everyone leads. I had all the best intentions for my role as a coach in TFP. I was an outsider entering into a community not my own. In order to avoid this hierarchal dynamic I would need more than good intentions I was going to have to move beyond doing the right thing.
The Future Project (TFP) was founded in October of 2011 by Ashoka Fellow, Andrew Mangino, and White house speech writer Kanya Balakrishna. Its mission is to transform education by inspiring and encouraging a culture of action among high school students. The Future Project is a community-based organization that has set an expectation of its volunteers that they will help build valuable and sustainable relationships between the organization, volunteers, and their host community.
The organization pairs high school students (Future Project Fellows) at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC; the New Haven Academy in New Haven, CT; the Legacy School for Integrated Studies; and the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in New York City, NY, with volunteers who are local young adults in college or graduate school, and young professionals (Future Project coaches). The volunteers coach the students as they develop and implement “Future Projects”—projects that aim to positively impact the student’s communities.
I appreciated that The Future Project had set this expectation of its coaches. It encouraged me to use my sociological imagination to take into account many of the ways that social identities and privilege could potentially impact the way I thought about my role as a Future Project coach. I could not approach my relationship with my Fellow as a sociologist offering perspectives that would change my fellow’s social condition. I could not approach this Fellow from the perspective of an older person offering my wisdom to a person younger than me. I needed to familiarize myself with my Fellow, her life, her community, and understand how my resources could work together with her resources to promote social change.
The Future Project has taken into account the role of privilege in community-based volunteer initiatives and has set its standard above and beyond many programs that lack this perspective. Yet, this is only one aspect of how race, class, gender, and privilege impact the dynamics of community-based non-profits.
On January 15, 2012,TFP provided an opportunity for further analysis of this impact by holding a voluntary workshop on issues of social justice diversity and inclusion for the TFP coaches in the Washington, DC, area. The workshop provided the opportunity for coaches to identify social justice issues, examine their own social identities, and recognize ways those identities interact with their role as Future Project coaches.
As TFP continues to explore the implementation of social justice issues into its framework, it serves as a model to other community-based organizations and to its Future Project fellows who will launch their own initiatives in the form of Future Projects. For more information, visit thefutureproject.org/.