The Youth Engagement / Volunteering Conundrum

Last week I was invited to participate on a community panel hosted by the Vietnamese Student Association. The panel consisted of eight major Vietnamese-serving organizations in Seattle and felt like a scene straight out of The Godfather. Eight powerful Vietnamese families setting aside their mistrust and hatred of one another in order to settle turf disputes, figure out who needs protection from who, and discuss why the Phams never get any respect. It was bloody; there was name calling and I’m pretty sure someone got poked with a sword.

Ok fine, I’m exaggerating. It was really cordial with lots and lots of side hugging. “Hi Minh!” Side hug. “Thai, long time no see buddy.” Side hug. “Quyen, have you lost weight? You’re so skinny.” Quick jab to the face then side hug (or as I like to call it, the “One-Two Frenemy Punch”).

The purpose of the panel was for youth to explore opportunities to get involved in the Vietnamese community by connecting them with various community organizations and professionals. The facilitators asked questions like “how do youth volunteer with your organization?” or “what challenges does your organization experience?”

While these were all fair questions, I felt there was an opportunity for the panelists to critically talk about how we support young people, rather than how they can volunteer for us. I previously described three reasons why youth volunteerism doesn’t solve community problems. I think many community organizations confuse youth engagement with volunteerism, which are two uniquely separate things. Ironically, this creates more problems than it solves.

For example, my cousin Denny, who was studying at Yale at the time, once described volunteering at a Vietnamese non-profit during a summer internship. He was signed up to be a teaching assistant but was thrust into the role of Lead Program Coordinator without any notice, training, or preparation. He was miserable, bitter and hated life, like he had early-onset PhD syndrome. Denny left the organization and vowed never to be involved in the community again.

If we visualize youth engagement and volunteering as two axes on a grid – which I call “The Cartesian Coordinate System of Empowerment” (patent pending) – we start to see that not all community organizations are equal in these areas. There are organizations that are fantastic at recruiting and managing volunteers to help achieve their mission. However, they might be terrible at providing opportunities for youth to learn, grow and feel a sense of ownership. These organizations have good intentions (including…ugh…the ones that host beauty pageants) but lack a focus on empowerment.

Youth Engagement Volunteering Chart
The Cartesian Coordinate System of Empowerment

On the opposite end, there are organizations that do a fairly good job at engaging youth. In 2009 VFA trained a group of young leaders to conduct a research and development project in the Vietnamese community of Seattle. Many of them have become advocates for education equity and are now working in state government and other non-profits. But we seriously stink at volunteer management. I can’t even tell the difference between a volunteer and a student in our programs—they all look the same! I dunno…maybe it’s because I just turned 30 and am experiencing early-onset dementia.

The point is, while volunteers can help non-profits, youth engagement is about empowering young people to be partners in the social change process. Successful and responsible community-based organizations need to be strong in both, or else we risk inadvertently placing young volunteers in environments that hamper their personal and professional growth–all in the name of achieving our social missions.

Next week I’ll share 12 specific ways community organizations can improve the way they engage with youth. In the mean time I’d love to get some feedback from all of you out there, especially from young people. What have been some of your experiences with volunteering and/or youth engagement–good and bad?

Anyways, for now I need to focus on VFA’s benefit dinner tomorrow, Thursday March 20th at the University of Washington. We’ve got a few tickets left, so get yours now! And if you mention my blog, we’ll give you 50% off your ticket! No we won’t, I made that up.


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