Volunteering as a pathway to Civic Engagement

Ms.Nuntinee Malanon, Manager of Volunteer Spirit Network (Thailand)

The program on 28 October 2016 was focused on civic engagement and volunteerism. There were two parts included comprehensive presentation about civic engagement and volunteerism in the US by Dr.Andrea Vernon, Director of The Civic Engagement Office at University of Montana as well as learning about volunteer led organization at Missoula Food Bank where we joined doing volunteer service.

The First session was presented about civic engagement and volunteering in the US by Dr.Andrea Vernon from The Civic Engagement Office.

University of Montana has embedded civic engagement as a mandate through the operation of The Civic Engagement Office which develops and supports opportunities for students to meaningfully engage in community-based experiences as a means to enhance their education and prepare them for active citizenship. The Civic Engagement Office partnered with nonprofit organizations to address challenges and create mutually beneficial outcomes as well as expanded partnership with local and state level each year. The nonprofit study programs is academic service which is offered for both UM students and nonprofit professionals.

The meaning of civic engagement involved components of individual and collective values. It was referred to a set of values and action to achieve ” the greater good” so it needs collaboration to bring together people around issues, ideas and problems in order to identify the common goal and solution. There are some indicators of successful civic engagement for example, engaging people around the problems, involving a broad spectrum of people including those who are hard to reach and not physically engaged, using tools and strategies that tap into the power or terminology and online networks, and focusing on sustainable efforts that use a range of strategies. Civic engagement created values for both individual and collective level. For individual value, engaging in civic activities can develop capacities as local and global citizens as well as create a sense of purpose, a connection to the community, and confidence. For collective value, civic engagement encourages people to feel attached to their communities and strongly correlate with trust in other people. High levels of trust and social capital will facilitate economic transactions and promote innovation in communities.

Dr.Vernon gave an example of a successful civic engagement which created great cooperation among civil society that changed community livelihood. High Line Park built in Manhattan, New York City, on an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad. It started when the property owner tried to lobby for the demolition but some residents of High Line neighborhood wanted to preserve and reuse as public open space. Friends of the High Line co-founded by Robert Hammon who is a residents in High Line neighborhood in 1999, he led the movement to advocate for the preservation by initiating an open idea competition for designing High Line and could select some architect and design companies to work on preservation and redesigning. Friends of the High Line worked in partnership with The City of New York and also engaged the vibrant and diverse community on and around the High Line in order to raise the essential private funding to help complete the High Line’s construction and create an endowment for its future operations. The strongly committed engagement was successful in 2009, the first section of the park was opened to the public and all sections were completed in 2014. It took 15 years of community engagement to achieve the goal.

What we have learned from The High Line case are some significant conditions of successful civic engagement. (1) Collaboration came the first priority which brought all stakeholders to the same page and looked for inclusive and comprehensive solutions. (2) Strong commitment sustained the long term project and built sense of belonging so that everyone could contribute from where they stood. (3) Creativity created engagement possibilities from all across sectors. Friends of the High Line chose the open idea competition as a platform to collect the best ideas for designing their community. Sometimes we needed to adopt different perspectives in order to get new visions and solutions which would be most beneficial for everyone.

Volunteerism is a key service learning approach which was contributed to civic engagement.The Civic Engagement Office offers volunteer programs for students in the community which demonstrated impacts of students’ service range from providing youth education program, to environment restoration, to animal preservation, to fundraising and organizational and capacity building, and many more. To measure students’ levels of civic competencies from volunteering, The Civic Engagement Office implemented an online assessment tool to measure the impact of service learning classes by launching pre-test and post-test for students enrolled in those volunteer based learning programs so that students could be measured how much they developed their civic competencies through engaging volunteering programs. Volunteerism was included in a spectrum demonstrated some keys of civic engagement level. The spectrum of civic engagement composed of 4 levels. The first level is charity which is a level of donating something or money to charitable or nonprofit organization. The second level is volunteering which means the contribution of you time, labor or knowledge for any particular cause that you want to make a change. The third level is activism which is an proactive approach to engage people to what are you doing and you focus on educating and advocating in order to change people’s mindset as well as institution policy. The forth is social change which is the end goal of civic engagement. Social change is referred to a kind of significant change in behavior patterns or cultural values and norms. These 4 levels in a spectrum of civic engagement is a tool for locating where are you working and help you to clearly identify the strategies or resources that you need to accomplish your civic engagement goal.

The second session was hosted at The Missoula Food Bank and all fellows had a chance to do a volunteer service by packing the dried pasta.

Missoula Food Bank aims to building a hunger-free Missoula by providing an access to nutrition food for everyone in Missoula. The organization values are respect and treat every person with dignity and empathy. The operation based on volunteers who helps a variety of jobs including store stocking , sorting food, interviewing customers, entering data, bagging groceries, cleaning, repacking food, collecting donated goods, and delivering food to senior citizens. There are 200 regular volunteers who come every week and the organization will provide training and orientation to prepare volunteers before action. Last year Missoula Food Bank served 18,000 individuals in total which is the great accomplishment. YSEALI Fellows were assigned to repacking dried pasta into small packages and they were able to make about 640 packages in 1.30 hours. That was such good experience to do in order to learn effectively.

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