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Commentary: Global Volunteerism

By Brandolon Barnett, Commentator

Dallas, TX –

In March I spent time working with volunteers in a small town high in the mountains of Jamaica's cockpit country. It was a short-term mission to promote cultural awareness and sustainability. We helped at the local elementary school, mixed cement, chiseled bricks, and constructed a trash bin that will allow for the safer disposal of waste in the town. We worked beside local families, sharing our culture and bathing in theirs.

Some call it global volunteerism. Others prefer citizen diplomacy. By whatever name, there has been an appreciable surge in both the number of people interested in serving abroad and the political will behind efforts to involve American citizens in U.S. public diplomacy. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2005, 50,000 people volunteered in locations as different as Romania and Ghana, a number that could double by 2010.

Their projects have changed lives in countless communities worldwide. They've also been instrumental in positively shaping the perception of our country and its people. These are the most common talking points you'll hear from politicians and international organizations. Yet there's another advantage that I think is severely underplayed.

One afternoon, a teacher asked his class why we were in their community. The answer he received almost immediately was "to teach." To their minds, and to the minds of many, we Americans were there to teach Jamaica and its people.

Still, I told the class there's so much that we learn from their lifestyles, families, and community. It's a two way street. Observing how they eat foods they grow themselves, how they live technically simpler lives with no less contentment can impact how we interact in our environment and communities here in America.

It never ceases to amaze me that even a homeless person in the U.S. often has access to modern facilities - the restroom at a gas station for example. In that same vain, I have seen volunteers realize even the underprivileged in the U.S. have advantages their new friends abroad do not. I see them wrestle with a clear sense of the challenges faced by people living month to month off the equivalent of their daily income. Something changes, and research shows that this change is not one of mere sentiment. As noted in policy briefs from the Brookings Institution and elsewhere, international volunteers "tend to develop enduring habits of civic engagement and lasting appreciation of foreign partners and perspectives." Those habits can be inspiring and invaluable in our stated quest for more sustainable living.

The average volunteer is a white female, age 18-24. I can't help but wonder how our current economy might look if a wider cross-section of Americans could benefit from the perspective on life, luxury, and happiness one can gain through these experiences.

The Global Service Fellowship program would support approximately 10,000 fellowships annually averaging $5,000 to pay for volunteers' travel, program costs, and minimal living expense. Now before Congress this legislation is one of several proposed bills that would help more Americans participate in volunteer programs. They need support because in a globalized world it's vital not just to teach but also to learn. As we and our congress members debate the value of funding international service remember that these initiatives can teach us valuable lessons that will reshape our own communities in a thousand little ways as we move further into this still-new century.

Brandolon Barnett

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.