The recent disgraceful derailment of the Norfolk Southern train in Palestine, Ohio, resulted from predatory capitalism on steroids. Railroads, given free land, have exploited the communities that journalist Robert Hennelly describes as “corridor communities” and endangered them with their unsafe practices. In the case of Palestine, while President Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and others have visited the site of the carnage, the railroad’s CEO, Alan Shaw, was late to visit and has avoided talking to the people who were affected by the derailment. People’s property values have plummeted and, more importantly, their lives are imperiled by the toxic waste that has infected the air in Palestine.
An unexamined aspect of Palestine is how much that small (population of 4,700) community relies on volunteer firefighters. Bob Hennelly says that of 29,000 fire departments in the United States, the majority – 18,000 – are volunteer fire departments. Many do not have the proper equipment to protect their lungs in case of toxic spills like this one. Still, because they care about their communities, they continue to volunteer.
In many ways, volunteers are the backbone of civic life. One organization, SCLC Women (founded by civil rights icon Dr. Evelyn Lowery), is fully staffed by volunteers. The week of Bloody Sunday, the organization sponsors a civil rights bus tour (with four buses of youth) and exposes young people to the civil rights history that isn’t taught in school. The board president, Patricia Ann Ford, notes that from their annual Drum Major Award to their programs for domestic violence victims, all services are provided by volunteers.
They aren’t the only organization that depends on volunteers, but I lift them because, in this Women’s History Month, the contribution that SCLC WOMEN (which stands for Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now) makes is critical.
Whether in civil rights organizations, our libraries and schools, volunteer fire departments and environmental cleanup, or service to the homeless, and seniors, volunteers provide much-needed service that many organizations could not afford to pay for. Women are the majority of volunteers, and as more women have entered the labor force, with many juggling more than one job, the need for volunteers is acute. Yet it seems that volunteers are more taken for granted than recognized. What would we do if they all disappeared?
In our very divided nation, volunteers remind us that we can come together for the common good of our communities. It doesn’t matter if volunteer firefighters are Democrats or Republicans. It matters that they’ve stepped up to serve. It does not matter what religion they belong to because, as Bahai ancestor Abdu’l-Baha’ said in his Divine Philosophy, “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship.” His quote suggests reasons a national service corps, designed as a year or two of mandatory service for young people, might allow us to see each other’s humanity and needs despite the sharp political divide.
While I have always appreciated volunteers, I had no idea that so many firefighters are volunteers and that 62% of fire departments are staffed by volunteers. Exploring the role of volunteers in fire departments and organizations like SCLC Women gave me a new appreciation for how people choose to serve their communities. It also reminds me of the many organizations that might not exist were it not for volunteers. Statistics suggest that 25% to 33% of all Americans volunteer, with their collective work valued at more than $147 billion annually! But as more Americans have less free time, there is always a need for more people to step up.
We celebrate women during Women’s History Month, many of whose contributions have not been fully amplified. People know about Rev. Joseph Lowery and SCLC but less about Dr. Evelyn Lowery and SCLC Women. We know about programs that serve the homeless but little about the nameless people who are dishing up meals, gathering clothing, and doing other forms of service. As we interact with some of these organizations, we might ask people about their volunteer service and what motivates them. Or, we might try volunteering ourselves.
Volunteers deserve our praise, gratitude and recognition, although many are less interested in recognition than in service. What would we do without volunteers? I, for one, do not want to find out.
Malveaux is an economist, author and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.