TEDxCalgary – Donna Kennedy Glans – Volunteering: The Next Generation

In the last few years, we've learned a lot about the human brain, and scientists can even point to a so-called "compassion gene". But really, why and how do people move from thinking about me to thinking about we? There's no magic formula and there's no compassion supplement that you can take, although that would be great new space for energy drinks. There is just a lot we don't know about volunteering. But there is one certainty. We know that the community is where divisions between the self and the whole can be reconciled. So how can we do volunteering better to foster, even accelerate, this integration of all these MEs into WE? To explore this question, I want to look at volunteering past, present, and future. I want you to think about how your parents, and for some of you, your grandparents volunteered. I want to think about how we volunteer today and I want to extrapolate into the future.

And I want to do this by breaking volunteering down into easier, bite-size pieces. I want to talk about the WHAT we do, the HOW we do it and the WHY. And that's not a linear; that's a pulsing cycle. What do we do as volunteers? What sectors do we work in? How do we do this work? What values do we bring? And why? What motivates us? I grew up on a farm. My parents volunteered in our rural community. The church was the hub of their volunteer work. They'd organize church suppers, they'd look after the ill; they'd look after the building itself, they taught Sunday school. How did they do this work? Human to human. They were very low key, it was grass-roots, pure grass-roots. Why did they do it? They did it out of a sense of Christian duty. I heard the word "duty" a lot when I grew up.

They also had a sense of responsibility to embed those values in their children. So, fast forward to today. How do my husband and I raise three children and volunteer in the city of Calgary? Well, my husband coaches hockey, and I taught quite a few Sunday school classes. That sort of sounds familiar. And yet there are huge differences. Not only do my husband and I volunteer weekends and evenings, we also volunteer as part of our jobs. Lots of for-profit companies do this. This is a tube of toothpaste from Toms of Maine. And right here on the package it says: "What makes a product good? At Toms it includes how we make it. 5%, twelve days of employee time to volunteering." But that's not all that's changed. My parents volunteered in the geographic community that they were part of, in the small faith community that they lived in. Shared values were just assumed in that geographic space.

Today, volunteering has gone exponential, it's gone global. I worked in the international energy sector and I worked in a lot of countries. And one of those countries was a very poor, muslim majority country, Yemen. No doubt you've heard about Yemen in the news. Their Arab Spring is dragging on and on. A decade ago, this country's leaders were looking at constructive change and they were even looking at ways to integrate women into professions and bring them into a predominantly male workforce. And they invited people like me, outsiders, to support that work. I founded Bridges Social Development in 2002, to take Canadian Calgarians, nurses, doctors, midwives, teachers, lawyers, journalists to Yemen, to do that work. So that takes me to the HOW of volunteering.

Has the HOW of volunteering changed all that much? Well, one of the big changes that I've noticed is the expectation of professionalism and the focus on risk. When my father volunteered to coach my sister and I in softball, all he had to demonstrate was interest and availability. Today, to coach minor hockey, we're talking minor hockey in the city of Calgary, my husband has to demonstrate absolute knowledge of the game, the ability to coach. He has to stay abreast of issues like the correlation between body checking and concussions and he needs to subscribe rigidly to the harassment policy of the league. The other big change from my parents' generation: they were insiders, they worked with a community whose values they knew.

Today, when we do this work, we're often outsiders. Now look at that blond hair in there! We're visible outsiders in a place like Yemen. And when you're an outsider volunteering, it changes the HOW incredibly. You have to be invited. You HAVE TO be invited. You have to talk about values. And you have to collaborate. You just have no choice — even at minimum, with the local champions or whoever has invited you in. Over the years, Bridges has partnered with a variety of organizations, large for-profit companies, small NGOs, local community leaders, young and old, multilateral organizations like the UN, faith leaders, government partners. This picture here is from the island of Socotra. It's offshore Yemen. And our health care training team there was a little bit surprised by the prevalence of cesarean births and deliveries. We did a lot of work with in-child care. And we were surprised by this.

When we found out the reason — 12 and 13 year old girls were having babies, we were absolutely shocked. But as outsiders, our saying anything would probably have been a negative. So what we did instead was work with our partners and the Minister of Health – there in that blue shirt-, and encouraged him to have dialogues with the tribal and the faith leaders, to talk about the issue of early marriage and convince them that it was good physically, let alone emotionally, for girls to wait until they were 15 or 16 to have children. And navigating these partnerships can be tough. This is hard work. It's touchy, sensitive. In 2005, I met a young Yemeni journalist named Touaco Carmen. She's there in the green head scarf. And she was anomalous. She belonged to the Isla party, one of the most conservative strands of Islam in that country, and yet she was advocating for gender equality and freedom of the press. She had just launched an organization called "Women Journalists Without Chains." And she wanted to partner with our organization Bridges. It was a bit of a startling experience. Could we collaborate with Women Journalists Without Chains and not get co-opted into advocacy? We did capacity building.

We spent a lot of time talking about values, talking about roles, and we ended up with an incredible partnership. And then there are times as an outsider volunteering when you know you just have to go, you have to leave. In 2008, Al Qaeda hit Yemen and started to target westerners. That was us! In 2009, our board of directors put a moratorium on travel to Yemen and we haven't been back since. It was very, very difficult for us. We mourned, it was like a loss. But the resilience of our organization was incredible. We did three things in direct response to that situation. First thing we did, we went to the neighboring country of Oman and we negotiated with them to take these Yemeni doctors there, to conclude their training in pediatric life support and project management. We went open source with all of our materials. You want any training program that we've got, you just go to our website, download it, and take it, and please use it.

And the third thing we did was set up a youth social entrepreneurial program focused on diaspora communities and aboriginal youth right here in Alberta. It took a really jarring event for Bridges to make these choices. I'm proud of these choices, but I'm also aware that great ideas can sometimes die because we focus so much on our organizations and not enough on the idea itself. Oops, I hit the wrong button. These stories give you some sense of the HOW and the WHY. You probably understand a little bit about why I volunteer and why Bridges volunteers do this work. But really, have the reasons for volunteering changed all that much over the generations? Or are we just using a different language to say the same thing? My parents talked about Christian responsibility and duty, and I talk to my children about responsibility, compassion and global security. But what sustains us, generation after generation? I believe it's that emotional spark. It can be as simple as holding a baby in your arms, knowing that you've done something, maybe very small, to give confidence to the people responsible for delivering healthcare in a place like Vietnam or Calgary.

Or it can be as dramatic as hearing news that your partners have just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Either way, that feeling is the same. Volunteering neutralizes that space between self and the world, and it allows us to relate our self to the world in a positive emotion. So what about the future? I'm going to use an example from right here, in Alberta, to talk about the potential. Aboriginal youth in Alberta suffer. On a daily basis, they deal with drugs and violence and gangs and suicide, and I expect every one of us cares deeply, but we don't know what to do. So let's think about the WHAT. What is it that we do now? Right now we focus on top down. We do a lot of work talking about strategy and policy for aboriginal youth: what kind of youth education strategies work? And we give them a lot of guidance on transparency and governance. In the future, to be effective, I think we're going to have to go to the grass roots, and we're going to have to get to know these young people, not just as statistics but as people.

And we're going to have to wear every single hat we have: for-profit, not-for-profit, government, acting as individual, social entrepreneurs. HOW can we do this differently? I understand the issue of being an insider and an outsider and I understand why an aboriginal youth would look at me and say: "You're an outsider". I respect that. Aboriginal youth who live off reserve can be seen as outsiders. But I don't think it works. It just doesn't work anymore. And I know it's really hard to talk about the other and how we relate to the other, but I just think we can't avoid this conversation anymore. We need to talk more about who are insiders and who are outsiders and who owns these issues and who's responsible. That brings me to the final suggestion, that's about collaboration. To create a community of support for aboriginal youth, we need to partner with a wide range of organizations and individuals, even ones we really don't like.

We have to bring all the resources to the table that are possible: open source, capacity building, advocacy, top-down, bottom-up, global, local, doing whatever it takes to support these young people, with resilience, determination, and humility. And what is humility? It has nothing to do with down-passed eyes and misty voice and noble stories of volunteering. It has everything to do with getting ourselves and our organizations out of the way and doing what we can to support these young aboriginals. And believing that one day, an aboriginal youth from Alberta could indeed be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Thank you! (Applause).