What volunteering has taught me

by woceht

I just made some readjustments to my volunteer commitments which led to some reflection on all the lessons I have learnt as a volunteer over the years.  Here is my attempt to consolidate.  This is a reflection on lessons that can be learnt outside of school.  Which people put far too much importance on these days.

The original instigator I credit for leading me down this dark path is Mr Otterman Siva who at the time was working on his PhD in mangrove tree climbing crab ecology at the National University of Singapore.  He was also staff at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, and it was in this capacity that I met him.  He taught me a few tricks about blogging and then sent me to the rocky shore at Labrador Park to document what was there.  I was hooked.  What followed (the exact order of which I cannot really remember and doesn’t really matter) were nature guiding at the intertidal flats at Semakau and Kusu Island with RMBR and Blue Water Volunteers respectively.  I also did some sporadic guides around the mangroves at Sungei Buloh.  That was a fun learning time.  I learnt so much about ecology, which had by then been largely cut out of the NUS biology syllabus, and also very crudely by just leaping in and doing about sharing knowledge with people.  And about changing minds by educating others about what is at their doorstep.  Singapore is a tiny city about the size of Manhattan and to accommodate its 6 million residents it is almost completely built up.  Most of us grow up without knowing about the tropical diversity lying in the waters around.  So the messaging at these trips was very much about increasing awareness and ownership.  I was very happy to read recently that there was a big feature in the local papers about biodiversity and the volunteers.

Somewhere in there I met another major influence in my life and way of thinking, although I did not fully appreciate it at the time.  Ria Tan is an avid amateur documentor of nature.  She personally funds and organizes field trips to wild places around Singapore and pays for video and editing equipment to record what is there so we can share it with people without bringing them there.  She also makes beautiful posters and books and consolidates info about nature on her website Wild Singapore.  What does Ria not do?  With the Wild Singapore team I had a lot of fun times, indulging in my love for macro shots, and getting stung by anemones while leaning in too close for too long to film a shrimp living in there.  I learnt a little bit about video/editing and photography, but mostly about commitment and passion and the lengths to which one can go for a cause if one has those qualities.

It took me awhile to get started again after my move to the US, but my next major volunteering adventure was with the folks at Vote for Equality.  That was a major phase of my figuring out my queer identity.  It was a good space.  We did canvasses and phonebanking for marriage equality.    I lent some statistical help.  I learnt a lot about communication.

Then I got distracted by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, after taking a class about communicating science which Emily and Dave from the AOP co-teach.  I was an education interpretor there for a little over a year, on and off.  This was my return to nature, and science communication–and the Pacific Ocean!  Which I am way more familiar with (as opposed to the Atlantic, which I worked in for awhile) and contains lots of awesome diversity.  No surprise that my favourite gallery there is the tropical one.  The AOP was the most organized in terms of incorporating education theory with science.  Till then most of the people I had met were mostly scientists.  It was nice to have a more theoretical educational perspective.  Hanging out with the 2nd and 4th Saturdays team was cool.  Just last week I wrote in to the day captains to say that I have maxed out my capacity for growth in that role and it is time for me to move on to other projects.  This is definitely a more conscious process now, for me.

Which brings me to my current adventure in volunteering.  Just last week I made full cook at the Bicycle Kitchen a bike co-op by where I live.  There we teach people and work with them to fix their bikes.  We provide the tools, all the ones too clunky and single use to have at home like headset crown race pullers and fork clamps.  We don’t fix bikes for them.  Learning is more empowering because next time people can fix their own bikes.  It is a fully egalitarian community and as a cook I have a voice.  Motions are passed by consensus which means everyone has to agree or abstain instead of tyranny of the majority which is what usually happens.  You’d think nothing would ever get done but just earlier this year they bought their own building.  There is no red tape, which saves a lot of time.  Inefficiencies are rapidly identified and resolved.  Web 2.0 tools rapidly adopted to help streamline the process.  Ideas are encouraged.  Everyone is extremely good at checking their attitude at the door.  It is a fascinating community.  As cook I look forward to being more involved in the decision making process and seeing how it works in practice.  In addition to bike mechanics (which is a never ending challenge with all the weird old donations we get), I am learning about managing people in real time.  Also about governance and initiative and making things happen.

So volunteering has taught me a lot of important skills that I never learnt in school.  It has created an appreciation for people, the full spectrum of humanity with all its myriad tones.  And I have also learnt a lot about how to make change happen.  I am sure there will be more stuff down the road.  I look forward to it.