Fighting polarization with volunteerism

Bring people together

Our world is becoming more polarized every year—one political ideology against another, one race or culture against another, one socio-economic status against another, and so on.

It’s becoming harder for people to find common ground, if they even try. And that polarization is leading to escalated hatred and violence. In extreme cases, even war.

But volunteering may be a way to start fighting polarization. Volunteerism, at its core, facilitates the discovery of common ground.

Engaging in volunteer work brings together individuals who, despite their differences, share at least some similarities. Whether it's addressing environmental issues, supporting marginalized communities or putting on a community art show, the act of volunteering unites people. Let’s face it, it’s hard to hate those who care about, and are working for, the same cause as you. If you care about the same things I do, you can’t be all bad.

The collaborative nature of volunteerism promotes understanding. When people from different backgrounds and beliefs come together to volunteer, they gain insights into each other's lives that extend beyond preconceived notions. Personal stories are shared, challenges are faced as a team, and we start to realize that, despite differences, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Unlike paid employment, where competition can often prevent the sharing of information, volunteering encourages individuals to provide their knowledge and perspectives to advance the cause. The deeper understanding of diverse viewpoints gained in this way can break down the barriers that polarization often erects.

Fighting polarization by fighting isolation.

Moreover, volunteerism has the ability to get people out of their comfort zones and into the broader community. Polarization tends to thrive in isolation, where individuals remain within the confines of like-minded echo chambers.

Think about it. How many people on your social media feeds have vastly different opinions about things from you? Volunteer activities, on the other hand, encourage people to step outside their bubbles and engage with the world around them, regardless of some of the opinions found in that world.

Whether it's working in a local soup kitchen, participating in environmental clean-up initiatives or contributing to community development projects, volunteering provides a tangible connection to the broader community. This exposure to different perspectives and experiences is instrumental in dismantling stereotypes and dispelling misconceptions that contribute to polarization.

In the realm of volunteerism, the emphasis is on shared humanity.

Volunteers have a collective commitment to making a positive impact in their communities. The work they do transcends the divisions that are the basis for polarization. Volunteers find themselves part of a larger narrative, contributing to a cause that goes beyond individual differences. This shared purpose becomes a unifying force, cutting through the rhetoric that feeds division and hatred.

I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of volunteerism in breaking down barriers, both in myself and in others. The leaders of volunteer programs that I've mentored often talk about how the act of volunteering has not only strengthened their organizations and communities but has also served to open their own eyes to the good in people that they would otherwise have avoided.

Volunteerism emerges as a potent weapon for fighting polarization.

By fostering common ground, promoting understanding, and breaking the chains of isolation, volunteerism has the potential to reshape our broken society. In a world that is divided against itself, just getting out there and volunteering can remind us that, despite our differences, we are all human and we all have a collective responsibility to make the world a better place.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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