3 Reasons Why Youth Volunteerism Doesn’t Solve Community Problems

This past weekend I had the privilege of facilitating a leadership retreat for a Vietnamese Student Association. The officers wanted to focus on team-building and effective communication (no, I was not teaching them English), and position their association to become more active with the local Vietnamese community. Their energy and passion for community service inspired me, but also made me think about how the community currently engages young people. Then I burned with the fury of a hundred tiger moms.

In recent years I have heard many adults and elders lament that young people are not more involved with the Vietnamese community. This is one of those ideas that sound good in theory, but has been historically been plagued by poor execution—like social security and the San Francisco 49ers.

The pattern generally happens like this: a group hosts a community or cultural gathering and invites young people to “get involved.”

Dear unnamed young person. I am the President/Grant Master/Supreme Overlord of the “Washington Vietnamese Helping People in the Universe and Vicinity, excluding Canada” (WVHPUVeC for short). We are hosting our annual dinner to help poor, starving children in Asia. We need volunteers to help arrange tables and clean up after the event! Come help us give back to the community by volunteering your time!”

These sorts of announcements make me cringe because they are patronizing and full of logical fallacies. It makes want fume over how angry these sorts of announcements make me feel. Very angry.

Fallacy #1, Appeal to emotion: Just because there are poor, starving children in Asia doesn’t mean setting up tables for an event will help their plight. An emotional decision is no substitute for an informed one—service demands both. When was the last time you heard a volunteer say, “Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to set up tables and pick up trash. It’s so obvious why this is the key to helping hungry children. I’d love to stay involved with this important cause, so please contact me again in one year. The trash doesn’t clean up itself after all. LOL JK 😀 ”?

We need to engage young people from the top and provide them with opportunities to address the root causes of social and community issues. Labeling them as volunteers and asking them to do the grunt work doesn’t empower them or our community. Young people have passion; let’s appeal to their intellect too.

Fallacy #2, Argument from authority: Adults and elders, despite their experience and wisdom, can’t solve every community issue alone. Sometimes their habits become a barrier to innovation and creativity. Youth experience the world differently—this should be celebrated, not ridiculed. We need to stop thinking young people are inexperienced and naive; they have an important role to play in the future of our community too. Let’s do away with fancy titles and focus on creating a shared vision instead.

If you ever find yourself a victim of this fallacy, simply replace the fancy titles with “mom.” If my mom asked me to clean the house, I would probably tell her that I was sick, made other plans to help hungry children in Asia, or simply don’t want to clean the house (and then patiently wait for her inner tiger to rip me apart).

Fallacy #3, The Bandwagon: A popular idea isn’t necessarily valid. If it were, then Asians would have started wearing chopsticks in their heads, and racism would have ended long ago, to accommodate these beliefs. Many people preach about the need of getting more young people involved with the community—to the point where it stops being meaningful. If we are sincere about engaging young people, we need to stop asking them to volunteer for us and instead ask ourselves “What can we do to support young people?”

My intention here isn’t to say that the Asian-American or other communities don’t need young people to volunteer. Volunteers are valuable part of community development and non-profit organizations (VFA’s annual benefit is coming up in March, email me to volunteer). But instead of lamenting some silly notion that young people are apathetic to community issues, we need to think of better ways to provide them with meaningful experiences where they can contribute their wisdom, skills and energy.

Why? Because I am a director at a non-profit and you will respect my authoritah!

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