In The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement (2015), my friend Mark Pancer noted that “making a difference” was one of the most common motivations shared by volunteers and activists in hundreds of interviews that his research team conducted. Indeed, his book is full of references to that refrain. There are plenty of signs that individuals all over the world willingly give of their time and money to help others in need. For example, in the United States alone, about 30% of the population volunteer, which is close to 77 million people. Over the past 15 years, people in the United States volunteered close to 120 billion hours. This amounts to $2.8 trillion. On average, they volunteer about 32 hours per year, which amounts to 7.9 billion hours of service. In terms of money, this is the equivalent of $184 billion. Reports indicate that people of all ages and all racial and ethnic backgrounds volunteer.
People volunteer in all sorts of associations. At home, we volunteer mainly with organizations dealing with disabilities. Many do so with Parent Teacher Associations, Boys and Girls Scouts, religious organizations, museums, schools, and hospitals.
During disasters it is not uncommon for many people to donate money. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake NGO’s and charities collected $ 4 billion. The Red Cross alone collected close to $ 500 million.
While many people contribute time and money to civic organizations and relief efforts, others engage in political processes to effect social change. This is what drew so many African Americans to the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholar Barbara Ransby claims that it is not only social conditions that lead to the emergence of social movements, but human agency as well. In her 2018 book Making all Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century, she argues that “there is always a set of conditions and circumstances that set the stage for movements to emerge. Some of that stage-setting is historical, having little to do with activists and organizers themselves but rather with the political and economic climate and an array of social realities beyond their immediate control. But then there is human agency: what we as human beings, as oppressed people, as conscientious allies of the oppressed, do (or don’t do) in response to the conditions and circumstances we encounter.”
It is a testament to the human spirit that African-Americans and other oppressed groups throughout history have fought to regain their dignity in the face of relentless denigration. In the case of Blacks in the United States, there has been a concerted effort to vilify their culture as the culprit of social problems. In her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016) Keeanaga-Yamatha Taylor argues that “there are constant attempts to connect the badges of inequality, including poverty and rates of incarceration, to culture, family structure, and the internal lives of Black Americans. Even before emancipation, there were relentless debates over the causes of Black inequality. Assumptions of biological and cultural inferiority among African Americans are as old as the nation itself. How else could the political and economic elite of the United States (and its colonial predecessors) rationalize enslaving Africans at a time when they were simultaneously championing the rights of men and the end of monarchy and establishing freedom, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness as the core principles of this new democracy?” Blaming the victim has been a favorite strategy of elites over centuries. As Taylor points out, “explanations for Black inequality that blame people for their own oppression transforms material causes into subjective causes. The problem is not racial discrimination in the workplace or residential segregation: it is Black irresponsibility, erroneous social mores, and general bad behavior.” That is how society quiets its conscience when four million Black children live in poverty, close to a quarter of a million of Black people lost homes in the foreclosure crisis and about a million Black people are in jail. But like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomati, founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, many others seek wellness with fairness in the community. We need both. Now, more than ever.