Dependable Erection

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Meant to finish this post days ago, but the day job keeps getting in the way.

Last week on Shooting the Bull, Ginny brought up the question of Durham's active citizenry. Although there are a lot of different areas of Durham life in which citizens are involved, when you get down to it, in a lot of cases it's the same people over and over again who seem to be taking on these responsibilities.

For some, it's a matter of having vested financial interests in town, and working to protect those. And hey, to be clear, i'm not saying anything negative about that. Others seem more interested in improving the Durham experience, whether that means lessening the racial divide in our education system, cleaning up our city's appearance, or countless other things.

But the question was what's the impact of having such a relatively small number of people involved in this work, compared to the Durham population at large? And for me at least, it's relatively straightforward.

Discouraging. Even within my own neighborhood, for example, the same handful of people are the ones who show up to pick up the trash in the park, to edit and distribute the newsletter, to lobby city council for crosswalks and traffic calming. After a while, for me, it's time to take a break and let someone else put those hours in. Especially when, two weeks after picking up the trash, some thoughtless idiots have replaced it with more trash. Or when, 7 years after starting to redesign the "worst intersection in Durham, and possibly the state" (that would be the Roxboro, Markham, Mangum crossover) Council still hasn't got a clue how they're going to pay for the redesign.

So, just a low-level whine for all you folks who've never taken the time to get out and about to make the community a better place. The rest of us don't have unlimited amounts of time, energy, or money to pick up your slack.

Get with the program, OK?



  • I have no idea what Durham's voluntarism rate is compared to other areas, and I wouldn't even guess whether it's likely high, low, or close to average. I hear you about the fatigue, though.

    Regarding why more people don't do civic work, I used to preach the "we're all in this together" enlightened self-interest thing (you know, working to clean up your own neighborhood makes your neighborhood a better place for you), and I've lectured against the "voluntarism free rider" thing. But what I've only recently started doing is talking about the pure joy of doing good work. A self-serving benefit that you can't get any other way than trying to serve others (including the broader community) just because it's a good thing to do.

    Speaking of volunteer fatigue, I've also been using it as a motivator for recruiting others into various volunteer folds. Everybody wins if I can successfully bring someone new onto the team to do what I might have burned myself out doing. I had some success with that last week, and tickled hell out of me.

    By Blogger Marsosudiro, at 6:24 PM  

  • I suspect that Durham has a greater rate of volunteerism than many, if not most, other communities in the region, if not the country as a whole.

    Certainly it's greater here than any place i've ever lived.

    On the other hand, the number of things that need doing and don't get done except by volunteers is overwhelming. I've never lived in a place where i've had to organize twice yearly trash pickups on my own block. And to be frank, it really needs to be done monthly.

    By Blogger Barry, at 6:38 PM  

  • The problem here is lack of ownership, or a lack of faith that your efforts will not be countermanded by "The Man".

    We libertarians have a saying: small government is better. Not smaller in the sense of less intrusive, or more conservative, or more liberal. Just smaller. Local governments are usually smaller than regional / state.

    I would love to see city services devolved to the neighborhood associations, because I think more people would get involved if they were empowered to do so. It would also pave the way for us to create a green utopian paradise, or a walled community of cul-de-sacs. To each his own.

    By Blogger KeepDurhamDifferent!, at 7:08 PM  

  • Having moved here from a culture of 10-hour workdays and hour commutes, being able to volunteer for anything actually feels like a luxury to me. I used to feel guilty for not being able to do more than write checks (although as one non-profitty person said to me, "we like people who write checks").

    That said, I'd rather volunteer my time for something other than picking up other people's trash. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Durham is the dirtiest place I've ever been. I've stopped walking around my neighborhood because the site of all the trash everyday just discourages me.

    I think one of the appeals of government is that it requires participation. I can't require my neighbor to pick up trash, or to send a check to Urban Ministries, but by golly, they have to pay their taxes, and those taxes may help pay for street cleaning or a homeless shelter.

    Civic participation is distinct from volunteerism. Some people would gladly pick up trash or serve soup at a kitchen who would rather stick needles in their eyes than sit through a city council meeting.

    By OpenID mrsdependable, at 8:37 PM  

  • civic volunteer work has never interested me, but i appreciate those 4 regulars who keep showing up. it's pretty much the same deal in the triangle art scene, which wouldn't exist without volunteers.

    By Blogger libby, at 9:49 PM  

  • Yeah, burnout can occur. I found myself burning out with my individual efforts to clean up litter in my neighborhood. But I sure do like it when I don't see beer and wine bottles, fast food bags, etc. strewn all over the street. It's in many ways a selfish act as I directly benefit, but I also do it in hopes that the less littered the neighborhood is, the less likely people are to add to the problem. While our neighborhood also does bi-annual pickups, that only covers a few blocks. Just keeping up with the litter within a two block radius of my home would require a weekly litter pickup.

    I haven't yet burned out with my volunteering at APS because I enjoy spending time with all of the great dogs there. Knowing that a great dog is euthanized for lack of an adopter is getting increasingly annoying though.

    And maybe I'm going insane, but I just volunteered to be our neighborhoods traffic chair. We'll see if I can make any improvements with the monstrous speeding problem. I've only lived here three years, so maybe I'm still a bit green and not so jaded.

    Keep volunteering if you can. But if you need to take time off for yourself, then do so - you shouldn't give so much of yourself that you don't give enough to yourself. This is especially true if you feel that your efforts are not appreciated, or that you are being taken for granted.

    By Blogger SteveG, at 8:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home