In the Beginning…
I’ll be the first to admit that for most of my life, I haven’t been the most community-minded person. Maybe that makes me a bad person, or maybe it’s because I grew up in the woods about 40 minutes by bike from my nearest friends. Whatever the case, the whole “go-team! Rah Rah! Let’s-do-it-for-the-community-thing” never really sat well with me. I got the whole boy scout thing as far as earning merit badges and learning interesting skills went, but that was mostly so that if I was lost in the woods, or trapped under a burning bear in an earthquake I would know how to escape with only a pair of tweezers, a rubber band and some homemade c4 plastique explosive (like you probably have lying around your house…).
I never understood that community was a thing to strive for. The same with people who use terms like “the people.” To this day when this is used, I get the strange feeling that I’m somehow not included in that group they’re referring to as “the people”.
I never even particularly liked team sports or group projects. I’ve always been good enough to make the grade on my own and most of my experiences with teams growing up involved “random” pairing by teachers to ensure that there was a “fair” distribution of kids in each group (READ: 3 lazy students and me doing their work). This isn’t necessarily true and I’m sure I often brought it on myself; I’m just saying that this is what community, teams and “the people” meant to me growing up.
My First Community
When I was 12, something changed all of that. I took my first trip to Widjiwagan (A YMCA camp in Ely, MN). Here was a group of people who wanted to go canoeing or backpacking (canoeing has been a family passion of ours since I was 18 months old). It was people MY age. For once, it was the kids who were nice that were treated as cool and the surly, sarcastic and mean-spirited who were allowed to ostracize themselves. This was the place that worked the way that the logic in my Aspergois head said the world should work. There were even people who got to stay on after their trip was over (this is an expedition camp, not an in-camp-camp). They got free reign of the Athletic field, interesting books about nature lore, use of canoes, saunas (whenever one was going) and they seemed to know everybody. What did it cost… Time. That’s right, just time. When you’re a kid, time has much less value than it does as you get older.
Widjiwagan paid their counsellors and staff of course, but there were a score of other people who worked as volunteers. What I thought at the time and struggled with was balancing the work (dishes for 600 campers, chopping wood, whatever the gruff and intimidating (but really a good guy) caretaker Joe Smith needed) and what I got in exchange.
See, at this point I had only learned half of the lesson about volunteering. What you get is never in and of itself equivalent to what you would have gotten if you had just paid for the experience. That didn’t come later. What I was learning- though I didn’t know it at the time- was: If you’re not being paid and the work is hard, you will probably have more fun than if you are paid for it. Why? Because humans are rational creatures. Most people assume this means that humans act rationally. It doesn’t. What it means is that when we make decisions, we constantly rationalize them to make them seem like we got the best deal; The best relationship, price on a car, preferred computer manufacturer, the best soft drink.
The greater the cost to you, the more you will rationalize that you are getting something good for it. To not get something when you’ve given something that cost you dearly is a terrible feeling and our brains are well-equipped to handle this. They just fire up the rationalization engine and come up with other things to add to the benefits side of the equation. (Want to know if you’re doing it? Here’s how: when someone points out a negative of a choice you’ve made; particularly one that was costly to you, or that they disapprove of. how many “yeah buts,” do you find yourself giving to “balance” the scales so that you can save face? The more you rationalize, the worse it probably was for you…)
This is not to say that Volunteering at Widji was less than I’d hoped for. I was so ingrained in the camp that one year, my counsellor allowed the other campers in the group to think I was the counsellor for the first 3/4 of our 14 day canoe trip. I learned innumerable things, I learned how to scour pots, build canoes from a master canoe-wright and how to put on a truly excellent skit for the end of camp talent show. If I could go back today at this point and do it all over again, I would. In a heartbeat. I gained something that no one who wasn’t there will ever fully understand. I gained the look in your eye that you only get by going into the wild places and getting truly away from the machines and machinations of mankind. Even better than this, I gained my first community. These were people brought together by shared values. People who cared about being in the wilderness and not just “protecting it,” but using it in a way that would ensure that someday our kids would get to. People who would like you just because you sang the same campfire songs or played the same A-field games. People who liked you, in fact, just for being you.
I think that this is why no matter what was required or what I had to do, I would try to find my way up there and spend time. I extended my volunteer tours so long that one year they forgot to send me home until the day before my high school started. (I would totally have stayed if I could have convinced my teachers to let me do my work over the internet.).
Years passed. I went through their program, visited the Arctic and afterward I went to college slightly changed.
Make Your Own Community
I attended college twice; once for Photography and once for Engineering.
In photography school, I learned how to build a team. I would find the people who were always at the lab, studio or computer lab and would ask if they needed help. I’d learn about assignments I’d yet to receive and they would get an assistant. Volunteering to learn how something works is amazing.
People need help and if you’re there, they’ll show and tell you things they wouldn’t otherwise, because they’re telling you for themself not for you. I learned who works well together and who doesn’t and which second-rate talents can combine to make something better than either could do on their own. I learned how personality comes into play and how to demand, suggest or insinuate what I wanted to get done in ways that got them done.
Every assignment I worked on with a group, I tried to make sure it was better than it would have been without my involvement. (Another piece slid into place).
In engineering school, I found out how to communicate what I wanted in such a way that in a group of 5 people everyone had 25% of their design ideas and 90% of mine. I learned that like Robin Hood, you don’t have to be the best at everything. It’s better to be second best at everything than best at one and bad at some others. The same works with people. I could communicate with the mechanical engineering students, the electrical, the design, the programmers and I was best at communicating than any of them. This meant that I could get them to support me and not fight with each other. As a result, we would pick 1-2 people per project to add or change so that by the end we had a really tight-knit group who knew how to work together.
Finally, I was in a group that wasn’t just enjoyable, it was easier to work with them as a group than it was to work by ourselves. As this was happening, I was noticing other changes occurring.
Working the Door
I started working the door at local dance events admittedly to get to in for free; but also because I couldn’t see how to throw my own and I wanted to be part of something special that was happening in a scene that I had been involved with for 10 years by that point. The work wasn’t hard and so what if they needed someone to carry water or lay out a tray of cheeses. It wasn’t that hard and it made the event better. I was slowly coming to a realization. The reason to volunteer is so that you get to volunteer.
A lot of great things happen, but if your goal isn’t the same as the person running the show (in this case, to throw a good dance event), you’re going to end up working at cross purposes. Once I started getting to vounteer for things, I never stopped. I would work the door at the local swing or blues dance, empty the water and garbage at Fusion exchange, work as a DJ-wrangler at a Blues Recess and find any excuse I could to work and belong. Why? Because I know that I can help make the event better with my involvement than without it.
That’s the attitude I look for when I hire my own volunteers. I’ve been organizing events and teaching dance for a few years now and I still volunteer. Officially and unofficially, I try to be on the lookout for ways to make things better, housing people, offering rides, picking up a musician, whatever it takes so that the people throwing the party or coming to teach have a slightly easier time with me than without. This gives me a good feeling.
There are other things that volunteering gives you that I haven’t touched on: It’s way to get to know other dancers who are helpful, a way to get to know organizers, teachers and rockstars, a way to make lasting friendships (sometimes because volunteering at an event was constantly averting disasters not in spite of it), people see you as a source for a solution rather than another problem. There are a LOT of reasons to do this.
First and foremost, your focus must be on the event. Otherwise, you’ll burn out. You won’t give what you need to to make it awesome. You’ll miss your shift. You’ll develop a reputation as someone who wants to get a free ride and doesn’t want to help. Don’t be that guy. Be the guy at the top of the organizer’s go to list for volunteers to ask. (We all have them, trust me). Be the awesome you want to see where you volunteer.