Embracing Volunteer Vulnerability

Embracing Volunteer Vulnerability

This is an excerpt from a paper presented by Brendan Joyce at the Volunteering Futures Forum hosted by CAPSTRANS and Palms Australia on Friday 13th February.

“As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson

Released from his fear of the locals, our volunteer is free to enter into relationships with them. The volunteer admits his vulnerability and asks for assistance from his counterpart, who volunteers to escort him on public transport to the markets. During the trip the host explains the strange vegetables and the process for purchasing them. He introduces the volunteer to friends and extended family, which endorses the volunteer’s presence and builds networks of security. If it is not safe or not appropriate to behave in a particular way, the volunteer can ask assistance. It is during these moments of vulnerability, when a volunteer acknowledges they need help, that a host shares more of himself. Realising that this whitefella is different, he’ll share a funny story about a previous volunteer who inadvertently wandered past the river where the women wash and was chased away by their brothers. Through such interactions our volunteer sees more of the meaning in cultural practices.

Released from her fear of inadequacy, our volunteer is free to share the responsibility for the project. She not only seeks local advice, she allows local direction. She views herself as a resource for use in achieving needs they have identified, not as the primary actor aiming to achieve some outcomes developed across the ocean. She encourages her counterparts to demonstrate their methods and only assists where her specific education or experience is required or requested. She better appreciates that she is not the first volunteer the community has seen and seeks to build local capacity wherever possible, knowing that many outcomes will not be achieved until after she leaves. Embracing her vulnerability is embracing community development principles, empowering people and increasing local ownership.

Embracing his vulnerability will not protect a volunteer from being challenged, but will help him understand that he must be. Released from his fear of challenging his own culture, our volunteer is free to view the host culture more objectively. His increased empathy allows him to avoid simplistically mischaracterising the culture as lazy, inept or corrupt. His willingness to accept that solutions do not lie in imposing his own cultural judgements increases his ability to work with the locals on solutions which reinforce the positive aspects of the host culture. His willingness to step outside his own culture, at the risk of being vulnerable, demonstrates solidarity with his hosts by choosing not to be part of a system which reinforces inequitable class structures. The recognition that, in an interdependent world, some aspects of his own culture must also change, transforms his work from a charitable project to part of a movement for global justice.

Embracing one’s vulnerability expresses a desire to enter into a mutual cross-cultural relationship, not from behind barbed wire or an inflated salary, but on as close to equal footing as is possible. It is an empowering process. It proclaims “I’m not afraid to work with you” and contains the undertone “and neither should anyone else be.” It is not about ignoring danger, but about recognising the burden of fear. The mutual relationship demands that where one party is more knowledgeable, whether in technical skills or local knowledge, that expertise is respected and sought.

Embracing one’s vulnerability is an expression of active nonviolence. It rejects the barriers placed between cultures, as violent, intimidating and counterproductive. It says let us work together for a just world for all; and let us not fear those who say it cannot be done.