September 06, 2015

In Service to My Community

Last week, I spoke on a panel about volunteerism for the Actor's Fund Work Program. I think their point was to convince actors that volunteering—working for free—is a worthwhile venture while they're not working for money, or that somehow volunteering will lead to paid work.

But, like most things in life, there isn't a one-to-one relationship between the two. There's no straight line that leads from one to the other. We're all on a circuitous path to wherever we're heading.

But that doesn't mean people shouldn't volunteer. There are plenty of ancillary benefits—many of which you don't really realize until after you start donating your time to some cause. I mean, I wasn't looking to volunteer. I was looking for a job. More specifically, I was looking for a job at a non-profit.

And I hadn't found one yet.

But I realized a few things about volunteering. It got me free admission into events I couldn't afford a ticket for. And, better yet, it opened the door to a sense of purpose.

After all, if you're not working, what are you doing? Aren't you just taking up space? Aren't we supposed to contribute to this life in some way?

A lot of people with a job don't contribute much.

I say that I fell into volunteering, but it's kind of always been in the mix in my life—first when it seemed like a good thing to have on my college application, and again when I wrapped Christmas presents for Gay Men's Health Crisis in NYC because, quite honestly, I just like wrapping presents.

But if you're not working—or even if you are—it' nice to have somewhere to go and something to do. It's exactly the reason why I went back to my roots and took a job at retail, even though I spent as much money as I made at my store on clothes. Given the opportunity cost of being in that store for five to eight hours at a time, it was almost like I was paying them to give me a sense of purpose and meaning, even if that meaning meant buckling strange women's shoes and zipping up their dresses.

But it's not impossible to make meaningful connections in this world, and sometimes working for free brings people together in ways that paid positions can't, because you all share a common passion, and you're all on a level playing field. You've chosen love and the greater good over personal wealth.

And you can be selfish about it, too. It doesn't have to be sad—with sick kids, or the elderly, or shut-ins. You can work with whatever you think is fun, like when I volunteer for the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation. I mean, how much convincing does it take to get me to hang out in a vintage movie theatre for a few hours?

After being laid off from so many jobs, or having so many other gigs fall through in one way or another, I've learned that it's important to build a solid foundation that's not dependent on any one thing—or any one person—in this life. It takes a long time to realize that I am not my job, so when I lose my job, I don't lose myself. Our personal identities are usually so wrapped up in what we do for a living, no one gives much thought to what we do with our lives.

Besides, there can be quite a bit of prestige if you end up chairing a committee or getting voted onto the board of something. No one knows whether you're being paid or not. It sounds very impressive.

And whether or not you are being paid, it is a job. There's a lot of responsibility to it, regardless of what you're doing.

But how can volunteering make you more hirable? In my own personal case, it's helped me learn new skills (even as basic as, say, learning how to use online ticketing services, or understanding how board meetings and bylaws work) and has expanded my network of people who might be willing to be a reference or give me a recommendation in the future. But, more importantly, I think it creates a shift in energy and attitude. Having a purpose—knowing that you have value—gives you motivation and confidence. You are not destitute. You are not desperate. You have important things to do.

But, how can I work for free when I need to be making money? To that, I ask, how much time do you spend not working and not looking for work? What are you doing then? Watching The Walking Dead? What takes up all of your time? What else are you doing that's so critical that you can't spend two hours on a Saturday morning painting a public art project?

I've been lucky because my past volunteering has always been on my terms and on my schedule—I can pick and choose when I want to work and what I want to do. And it's helped me defray costs. I've volunteered for incredibly selfish reasons, not the least of which it makes me feel good, sometimes when nothing else can.

A few months ago, I got ticketed for making a U-turn in a business district, which is apparently illegal in the State of California. I didn't worry much, because I'd managed to get a few other tickets both in New York and California dismissed, so I appeared at my arraignment, plead "Not Guilty," and showed up for my court date on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, assuming that the cop who'd stopped me wouldn't show up, and my case would be dismissed.

But, to my dismay, the cop did show up—apologetically—forcing me to change my plea to "No Contest," even though I knew I couldn't pay the fines associated with that violation (and conviction). So, I was understandably worried, until I remembered that I had one option, one saving grace in the traffic court system: I could ask to do community service instead of paying the fine. I could work off what I owed at some place that could probably really use my help.

I got assigned community service at the Goodwill near Miracle Mile. They didn't call me a "criminal" or a "convict"—I was a "court-referred volunteer." When I arrived for a shift, I said, "I'm here to volunteer."

And that, actually, felt really good.

My first day at the Goodwill blew my mind. I think they get a lot of deadbeat convicts like me in there, so they just sent me off to clean a section and didn't bother with me much. But, having previously managed a clothing store, I was pretty adept at organizing the women's section and cleaning things up. And they noticed. They actually noticed. And they said, "Thank you." And they said, "Good job."

How often do we ever hear that in our careers? Whether we're freelance or full-time, how many of our coworkers or supervisors actually thank us for all the shit we endure? I mean, at Goodwill, we have to wear these bright blue rubber gloves, because you never know what you're going to encounter when picking clothes up off the floor of the store or the dressing rooms. It is not pretty.

And the staff acknowledges that. They're grateful that they don't have to be alone in maintaining the store. While I'm rehanging clothes on their hangers and pulling skirts out of the shorts section, they can focus on ringing people up and bringing new merchandise out.

Technically, I'm working for free—but I'm paying off a debt. I'm defraying costs, just as I am when I volunteer at a party whose ticket price I can't afford.

And I'm doing what I'm good at. When I create a section for suits, or I separate the t-shirts from the short-sleeved blouses, I feel like I'm providing a valuable service. I'm proud of what I do, regardless of the compensation.

People on this planet get paid a lot of money to do stupid things, and they get paid very little money to do important things. We can't value our self-worth based on our compensation level. It just isn't commensurate.

But a pretty good measure is how you feel about what you do, how you feel when you walk away from a task. In the most selfish way, there is a one-to-one relationship in volunteerism that matters: do good, feel good.

Related Posts:
I Am Not-Working
The Road to Nowhere, Part 2
Free Milk
Now What?

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