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  • Gary Gannon

Volunteer 101: Navigating Privilege in a Volunteering Environment

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Gary Gannon TD gives Suas Trinity the essential lowdown on how to remain considerate and respectful while volunteering

There is a deeply held myth in Ireland that the Leaving Certificate is a meritocratic sorting system for future success, yet the data always illustrates a different story, one of inequality and injustice. Only this week the Higher Education Authority released information from 2018 enrolment data that twice as many students from affluent areas are going to college as those from ‘disadvantaged’ areas. A driving distance of just forty minutes separates Dublin 6, the highest progression rate to college in Dublin with 99%, to Dublin 17, the postcode with the lowest progression rate of 15% (Higher Education Authority, 2015). While the trials and tribulations of being a teenager may be universal, it’s evident that some of our communities in Ireland are worlds apart.

So what do you do if you are bridging these two worlds? How do you come from a place of privilege and volunteer in a world you are a stranger too?

I think that’s the starting place. Privilege. Acknowledging it and naming it. Michael Kimmel, the American sociologist, said “privilege is invisible to those who have it”, but to have the opportunity, confidence and time to volunteer is a privilege. We all have access to privilege, every single person, just different amounts and acknowledging the weaker or stronger currents that have played a part in propelling you forward in life or that have made your life easier to navigate is a necessary exercise that all volunteers should do before entering a classroom, (even a virtual classroom).

Another part of making the invisible visible is acknowledging the power of words. Maya Angelou said words were living things that get on the walls, the wallpaper, your clothes and finally into you. Words like ‘disadvantage’, ‘poverty’, or racial or gender slurs can become fused to a person. They are not removed at the end of the day but are continuously carried. Someone who takes on the role as a volunteer has to recognise that the power and impact of their words, language and behaviour is perhaps even more important than their actions.

In some ways in 2020 our worlds have become more similar, a seismic shift that has been shared by all but not experienced identically by all. Charity work and volunteering shouldn’t be and isn’t an act of voyeurism. It should have an equally profound impact on the volunteer as on who they are helping.

Over my time in Trinity College and working with the Trinity Access Programmes one of the richest experiences I gained was the opportunity to meet people from other backgrounds to myself, with different experiences and life experiences. Everyone can volunteer, whether from an affluent or working class background. In fact, that diversity of backgrounds is necessary. To tackle the biggest issues facing our society such as climate change, growing inequality, educational injustice we need diversity, we need collaboration and we need empathy.

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