Volunteering for Tomorrow: Why Intergenerational Equity Matters

The following entry was written for “Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” the blog of the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties.

When I look at the place where I live, sometimes things seem worse off than ever. There are huge government deficits and growing unemployment; Social Security is running out and we’re drilling for oil in every pristine corner of the planet. Here in our own town homelessness feels louder than ever, and my jobless friends can’t find work that fills their stomachs, let alone their pockets or their souls. These are challenging times.

Yet, somewhere between the blurry lines, socially-conscious media has seeped into my brain, leaving me with the lesson from my toilet paper package, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” For me, this adage is defines intergenerational equity. First used in economics, today when I work with adults and youth focused on civic engagement I use intergenerational equity to describe the reciprocal awareness each generation has about the people and events that have come before them and the people and events that are yet to come.

When we’re volunteering throughout our community, either as leaders or followers, planners or doers, I think it is important that we each see the responsibility we have to acknowledge the people who have come before us, see what impacts they have had, and figure out how we can build upon those actions. We also have a duty to name our goals and to look ahead at what we might be causing. Using the concept of intergenerational equity as a way to think about these things, we can really begin seeing why we do what we do, and how our actions affect the world around us long after we’re gone.

Several years ago I volunteered with a local nonprofit that replanted a patch of native vegetation along a local waterfront. While dozens of people were planting several of us found signs that the area had been planted before, including old tags from native plants identical to what we were planting. After a few days of trudging the job was done, and my volunteerism felt good. But 10 months later all the plants looked dead, not rising with the fall rains. A year later the area was grown back over with invasive species, and I was bummed. Talking with the project coordinator, she found old newspaper articles that talked about the toxic dirt in that area, and two years later she geared back up volunteer efforts; only this time they took steps to analyze the soil and mitigate the toxins. Now that patch has looked great for more than 5 years. In that same way I am eager to volunteer in my daughter’s elementary classroom here in Olympia as often as I can. Every time I leave there I’m a little bit exhausted and a lot inspired by the energy and excitement of the students and their teacher. But I also rest assured knowing that the impact I’m having goes far beyond any individual student or day in class; instead, I know that seeing a familiar adult face week after week helps acclimate to supportive and sustained role models. Being a male, I also know that I’m influential that way, too.

Considering how intergenerational equity can drive our volunteerism and affect our communities can allow us to be more successful in all of our efforts. Ruth Bader Ginsburg once asked, “Who will take responsibility for raising the next generation?” I want to expand that and ask, “Who will take responsibility for raising the past generations, raising the next generations, and nurturing the present generation?” Intergenerational equity demands nothing less.

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