Leadership is undoubtedly trendy. Motivational speakers and some ambitious students can be found at the forefront of a movement convincing young people that everyone can be a leader. Brock University students can attend any of the dozens of leadership development events and programs available each year.
However, this leadership can often feel less than genuine. Especially when it comes to the intersection between student leadership and volunteerism, it can seem that we care more about photo-ops and social media posts than about specific causes and the teams we work with. How do we cut through performativity in these spheres and lead and support our communities in genuine and helpful ways?
Make your leadership accessible
Accessibility is a buzzword to some but a necessary part of life to many folks with marginalized identities. Evaluate the potential barriers to attending your workshop, joining your club or team or otherwise engaging with your work to the full extent.
Is the fee to attend or join reasonable? How can you reduce costs in order to make your work financially accessible? What can you do to make it fully accessible to students with disabilities?
Check your privilege
What role does your privilege play in your understanding of volunteerism opportunities? How does it impact power dynamics on your team? How will you address your privilege and use it for good?
Move past validation
If a cause is meaningful to you, supporting and furthering it should be enough. It’s okay to want acknowledgment when you do good things. It does, however, serve as a sign that your work is less than genuine when you’d rather have the attention on your efforts than the cause itself.
If your aim is to lead people, you have to know where they want to go. It is hard to take note of, analyze and address a need. However, when those you hope to lead are uninterested in your initiative or even actively push back against it, it’s time to reflect on whether the initiative needs to move forward at all.
Success in student circles is rarely the result of one driven student. As a post-secondary institution, success at Brock involves collaborative efforts made by a variety of passionate students more often than not. When working with a strong team, disregarding their abilities is rude at best, and depending on present power dynamics, can be a form of oppression when someone of a dominant culture is silencing those with marginalized identities.
Never sacrifice someone else’s dignity
It is possible to support members of the community without sacrificing dignity. If you feel you need to emphasize the struggle of the group you seek to help, especially if you have not experienced it first-hand, your initiative is insufficient. Folks who are homeless or experience food insecurity, for example, aren’t asking for pity and shouldn’t have to play a role in your performance to receive support you have offered them. The struggles of disadvantaged groups are not a commodity for you to repackage and pitch to sell fundraiser tickets or recruit volunteers. They’re real and significant experiences of humans who deserve dignity and respect.
Support appropriate leadership
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we are not the person for the job. In the often very privileged realm of student leadership, it’s important to know when to step back and amplify the voice of someone else rather than speak over them. Whether someone has more relevant experience, a stronger skill set or simply would do a better job, a strong leader knows to let others shine.
Ask yourself: is it important for me to be speaking right now? What value am I adding by speaking? Is there someone who wants to speak who I am overshadowing?
Ask for help
Similarly, a good leader knows when to outsource. The insight that others bring to the table and the experiences that inform their ideas are invaluable. Decisions are not employed in a vacuum and should not be made in one. Consult relevant people and groups, ask your team for help and acknowledge that as hard as you try you cannot know everything.
Student leaders and volunteers tend to work with conventionally socially acceptable causes. Some causes aren’t as marketable as running arts and crafts for adorable puppies, but they are just as important — if not more so. If you pick your projects so your Instagram followers have something nice to look at, you’re doing it wrong. If you want to make a difference in your community, it is unlikely you will accomplish it in photo-worthy settings.
Help how it’s needed
Many of us act on our first instinct in terms of how to approach a cause, which tends to be what’s easiest or most enjoyable for us. While many of us would love to travel abroad and pick up a hammer to build houses, we need to combine some previous steps and listen to the folks who live there and help unconditionally. What may be more effective is sending someone with actual experience in construction. Maybe the best way you can help is fundraising and donating financially so an organization can use that money as it needs.
The Red Cross, for example, only accepts financial donations to provide emergency housing, food and clothing in emergency situations. This is because donations may not be exactly what is needed — let’s talk about how many of us donate cream of mushroom and tomato soup to food banks when we have ravioli or beans in our cupboards — and this surplus of unneeded goods incurs unnecessary storage, processing and transportation costs.
The organization also does not mobilize volunteers until they have received training. In a culture defined by instant gratification, the process of applying, training and staying sharp until you’re needed goes against our most primal urges. Even so, it’s the best and only way we can genuinely provide support as volunteers.
Fight the system not the symptoms
When possible, use privilege and power as a student leader to address systemic issues that create the circumstances for volunteering and philanthropy. Those Instagram photos of you in a volunteer uniform teaching small children English may make you look good in front of your followers, but lobbying the government for better resources for new Canadian families can help resolve the need for that work in the first place. It isn’t as glamorous, but it is far more significant to address systemic inequity than to capitalize on it to bolster your sense of identity.
If you’re down for the photo-op but not to fight for the cause, is your leadership and volunteerism real? Or is it really performative?