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Volunteering and Empowerment

Four times a year I make a pilgrimage. The distance is modest, the journey is hardly onerous (thank you HS1), and in a delicious irony it takes me away from the centre of western Christendom. My destination is The Cartoon Museum, or, more specifically, a day of taking down, re-framing, and hanging cartoons, painting walls, fetching, carrying, and general doing what needs doing, at the end of which we have put together (powered by much tea, biscuits, and the promise of the pub) another fine exhibition of British cartoon art. The pictures dotted around this post give a glimpse of the process of putting together the museum’s latest offering – Her Maj: 60 Years of unOfficial Portraits of the Queen.

  

But the efforts of yesterday are not the subject of this post. Rather what I want to consider is the value of volunteering. Often I am asked why I volunteer? Why I choose to give up a whole day from my already busy schedule? Why I do that work for nothing? Why I do not mind ending up out of pocket as a result? And why I move shifts and take holiday to accommodate my volunteering? In short why I go to great lengths to give up my time for free.

The simple answer is that the above is worthwhile given the pleasure, satisfaction, and sense of community I enjoy as a volunteer. But if this all sounds too saccharine to peek your interest reader, perhaps the sense of empowerment volunteering provides will be of interest.

  

For two years I’ve have assisted with the delivery of the employability strategy in the School of History at the University of Kent. I’m no expert in this area. For that you might wish to consult a charitable organisation such as Do-it. Instead I merely stand up before a room of stage two and three undergraduates and tell them about what I believe volunteering added to my career and to my life.

So what has volunteering added to my life and what does it continue to add?

Around four years ago, whilst in the early stages of my PhD, I approached the Cartoon Museum directly about becoming a volunteer. I had no grandiose plan to get involved in major projects. No sense that certain tasks were beneath me. Rather I just wanted three things – to support a museum I appreciated, to have something to orientate my time around, and to do something that wasn’t sitting around all day reading, researching, and writing (we all need a break, right?). Soon I was going in once a week. I sat in the gallery. I went out on post runs. I chatted to visitors. I sourced stamps for awkward packages. I helped out at private views. I bought milk. I manned the till. I hovered floors. I shortened the legs of a bookshelf (which is still standing – small white piece of furniture opposite the front door). I washed mugs. I told people that despite their being in a museum they were more than welcome to laugh. I sharpened pencils. I took humidity readings. I conducted brief surveys. Soon I was asked to help out at the ‘hanging days’ and since leaving London these quarterly Monday’s have become my main connection with the museum. The days are long and hard, and involve me being far more practical than in my day-to-day life. But the sense of achievement is tremendous (yesterday a team of three staff and five volunteers managed to turn around 150+ pictures in a day).
Little of this might seem particularly profound, but for me the museum contributed massively to the successful completion of my doctoral research. Beyond helping me forge contacts in the cartooning community and giving me access to their archival material, the Cartoon Museum was a place of escape from the incessant PhD grind. It was a place of normality. Of lunch-breaks. Of short-term deadlines. Of people. Of community. Of real concerns. It was also a place of empowerment. It gave me access to a network where great value was placed not so much in the abilities you possessed or the intelligent arguments you made but in just you and your willingness to offer yourself for a period of time. As a result I worked alongside a huge range of people of different generations and from a wild variety of cultural backgrounds. All had specific skills they could offer, but what was most valued, most cherished, was merely their time.

  

All this is why I still make a pilgrimage four times a year to Little Russell Street. And these same reasons are why I implore undergraduates to see beyond the obvious career-focused potential of voluntary placements or internships and instead consider doing something locally on a regular basis – because, I believe, volunteering is a useful space for undergraduates to feel empowered which sits both outside and alongside the mundane (casual work) and the demanding (study) spaces students traditionally occupy.

Convinced? Then get yourself out there and start convincing your students to get involved by volunteering in their local community or through organisations in the heritage/charity sector which they have a passion for.

‘Her Maj’, a humourous celebration of Queen Elizabeth II in her Jubilee year opens 1 February and runs until 8 April at The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell St, London WC1A 2HH.