The Secret to Lifting Our City: Redefining What it Means to “Volunteer"
Gary Bagley, New York Cares Executive Director
I get it. New Yorkers are busy. We wear “I’m busy” as a badge of success. The idea of carving out time in our lives to seek out meaningful volunteer opportunities, though well-intentioned and genuine, often falls off the to-do list in favor of work, family and the need to just take a break over the weekend. Maybe the word “volunteer” is the issue. It might seem odd coming from someone who runs the city’s largest volunteer organization. And it’s certainly not the most common message to shout out during National Volunteer Week, a moment when our country comes together to celebrate the millions of Americans who give back without any thought of gain for themselves.
Our city is one of stark inequity. New York City is home to some of the healthiest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. Mere blocks away from those areas, millions of New Yorkers must struggle each day to make ends meet. They fight to make rent, struggle to navigate complicated educational systems, and wait years to get their citizenship. Volunteerism in the traditional sense is one solution to that. But it’s not the only solution. City government tackles issues on a legislative level, nonprofits large and small adapt to changing community needs, and activists serve as champions for change.
The fact is, we live in a time and city when the fight against inequality has so many valid responses. More than any year before, in the last year we’ve seen our volunteers do more than on-the-ground service - they are marching, protesting, attending community gatherings, and more. People stand up online every day in support of their own or others’ communities. People give money to their neighbors, their friends, and to small organizations that they believe in. The key to integrating social change into your life is not about making it look a particular way, but committing each day to doing something.
At New York Cares, we believe in the power of on-the-ground volunteerism. There is magic that happens when communities come together to lift each other. Everyone grows. The volunteer becomes more knowledgeable and empathic. Each individual involved in service feels more connected to our city. That tangible volunteer action has real impact. Volunteers in our free College Access program have helped thousands of students in low-income areas feel more confident and prepared for school, which has, in turn, changed the trajectory of their future. Right now, hundreds of volunteers across all five boroughs are helping New Yorkers fill out their tax returns and get the vital Earned Income Tax Credit, securing an average refund of $1,600 on an annual income of $20,000. If you want your service to be on-the-ground, you can do that with us or many of the other great organizations in our city that run direct volunteer programming.
But don’t let the pressure to “volunteer” stop you from giving back. Instead, consider challenging what it means to volunteer. The true way we lift our city is if each of us every day commits to one action that makes our community better. It can be a tweet, a conversation, a neighborly gesture, or the two hours of tutoring. The key is not what it is, but that we do it. Because while we all can (and should) have a different opinion about the best way to make positive social change, one thing that’s undebatable is when a community of New Yorkers is committed to lifting each other up, the city will rise.