Young activists: be kind to your older women volunteers
One of the most depressing parts of volunteering for social justice causes is noticing how the labor of older women is systematically taken for granted, unappreciated, and unrewarded. If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll notice it too, I promise. Whether the cause is religious-progressive, economic, political or otherwise, older women will be doing most of the foot soldier work of a nonprofit organization. In the urban South where I live, these are predominantly older African-American women. They’re the ones that are out knocking on doors in all weather, staffing phone lines, passing out food, maintaining databases, fundraising, teaching.
Young people will have more immediate spare time and a ton of energy, and they often pull heroic week-long or month-long stints. And then they move on. But the older women are the ones who stick around and provide continuity.
Since we have a big election coming up next year in the US and I hope everyone will get involved in social justice political volunteering like voter registration, here are some tips on how not to be an unthinking jerk when it comes to appreciating your older women volunteers:
- Commit yourself to sustainable, inclusive, community-based, intergenerational social justice. If you’re a college student from out of town, make sure you learn about local issues.
- Stop every once in a while and think if you’re subconsciously favoring and promoting the rarer younger men volunteers. Acknowledge their work, but don’t put them on a pedestal.
- How are you valuing your volunteers’ labor? No, they don’t expect to be paid, but have an informal way that shows you care. Give out certificates. List their names on your organization’s websites. Have potluck volunteer appreciation parties.
- Schedule in breaks for people to rest. Make sure you have snacks and water for long efforts. Making your efforts friendly for disabled people makes them friendly for most elderly people too.
- Don’t freak out if someone shows up with a kid. Sometimes childcare plans fall through. Ideally, you’ll have a small kid-friendly space, just somewhere where the kids can be supervised and safe. Keep a box with an activity book and maybe an old tablet that runs some educational games.
- Cut the soccer mom jokes. Those jokes are boring anyway, and the soccer mom might be a lesbian Latina socialist who’s proud of cheering on her kids.
- Ask volunteers how to make their work more helpful and efficient and listen when they give their opinions. Disregard the seagulls (people who fly in, make a lot of noise, crap all over the place and fly away again) and focus on the people who are your long-term dedicated volunteers. These people often don’t give their opinions because they’re not sure they’re going to be listened to. So ask and listen!