Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Don't Just Volunteer!

James Skillen


April 28, 1997

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Colin Powell are hosting in Philadelphia a high-profile spur to volunteerism. The Presidents' Summit for America's Future has brought together enough people to fill a small town—thousands of Americans from all parts of the country and from a wide variety of associations, companies, and political units. Americans are being called to action: We must volunteer more to help vulnerable children and young people. Without a doubt, a new flowering of volunteerism will help kids, and not only them. But a better American future will take more than this.

The Presidents' Summit stems from the growing conviction that American progress requires recovery of the American tradition of voluntary action that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated a century and a half ago. As the advocates of a "new citizenship" put it, we need to get back into the habit of rolling up our own sleeves and pitching in when we see neighbors in need, rather than rushing to call our representatives to create a government program. By turning too often and too quickly to politicians and professionals, we've lost something important not only for needy kids but also for our own lives.

There can be no substitute for hands-on help, provided freely and personally. Loving our neighbor requires no less. But it does require more. Children's lives, our lives, and our communities are shaped also by large structures and processes—by government action, corporate decisions, and nongovernmental organizations of many kinds. To get to a better American future and to improve the lives of America's children, these all need care and attention.

We need a renewal of political participation: more and wiser involvement by citizens to guide and to limit government. We need government officials who understand how to undergird and protect the institutions of civil society. We need creative new action by nonprofit organizations, whether they are staffed by professionals or volunteers. We need corporations that pay more attention to the impact of their routine operations on families and communities. In short, much of the reinvigorated action we need is inside the structures of our society and not only alongside them.

Voluntary action is invigorating, flexible, straight from the heart, a blessing to the helped as well as the helper. We should be pleased that BankBoston will help disadvantaged youth find jobs and mentors, the Jewish Social Justice Center will mobilize 100,000 volunteers to tutor school kids, and the U. S. Army will expand opportunities for its active duty and retired personnel to help young people. The Presidents' Summit has spurred a long list of organizations to plan ways to energize volunteers.

But it would be a grave mistake if those organizations and their employees become so focused on volunteering that they neglect the ways their daily actions either help or harm kids, families, and neighborhoods. What a tragedy if a public official volunteers to serve meals to the homeless but forgets the needs of the poor in her zoning decisions. What a shame if a church mobilizes its members for community service but does not help them do justice and love mercy in their everyday work. How counterproductive if a corporate executive tutors housing-project kids but does not consider hiring any of the project's adults.

By all means let's use our spare hours and energy to volunteer. But let's not forget to ask whether our regular work serves our neighbors as it should. Heed the Summit's call to volunteer action. Just don't ignore your calling from God to serve your neighbors also through voting and your occupation.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”