COLUMN: Breaking for social progress
I spent a week of my winter break completing volunteer work as a part of Central Michigan University’s Alternative Winter Break program, and I’m happy to say it far surpassed my expectations.
I am always skeptical of volunteer trips like this, especially because it is tied to an institution that operates largely on tuition dollars of fellow CMU students and myself. Even though CMU is known for having one of the “best Alternative Break programs in the country,” I couldn’t help but look at the whole thing as a great public relations opportunity for the university — students turning into social activists overnight and getting travel opportunities even though they are visiting unfamiliar locations to volunteer for a cause they might know nothing about for a short period of time.
Despite my skepticism, I wanted to become more involved with social issues. A week of break was the perfect time for me to volunteer my time without school or my job to get in the way, so I signed up to volunteer as a part of the Alternative Break Program to benefit the LGBTQ community.
I chose to volunteer for this issue because I believe it’s unique in the way that it encompasses many other social issues through intersectionality, the overlapping of someone's identity that could include race, gender and socioeconomic class. The LGBTQ community itself exists because there is a group of people who don’t conform to what society deems as “appropriate.” The issues within the community are fluid and every member is different.
My group ended up going to Center on Halsted, which is located in Chicago and serves as a community center and safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community. I went into the break with relatively low expectations because of my misgivings about large institutions and the complex issue of LGBTQ rights; mostly I was unsure of how big of an impact 11 college students would be able to make in this area.
The first day at the Center, my group was educated on the complexity of LGBTQ issues as well as the history of the Center and its programs.
I learned that Center on Halsted operates almost solely through volunteers. Programs include but are not limited to offering LGBTQ youth free meals and events like open gym, GED testing and most importantly a safe space where they don’t have to worry about being discriminated against because of any part of their identity. There are countless programs within the Center that benefit a diverse spectrum of the LGBTQ community. My group was mostly involved with the youth program.
In terms of actual volunteer work, we performed indirect service like cleaning the building and sorting books in the youth room. If we didn’t do this work then it would be left to staff members who could instead be using their time to do more meaningful work that we hadn’t been trained to do effectively.
We also did direct service that included participating in discussion groups within the LGBTQ youth and senior programs. Simply offering support in the form of being present as a third party member of the community I believe made a meaningful difference.
I know I left Center on Halsted the last day of my volunteer service as a stronger ally and advocate for LGBTQ rights than at the beginning of the week.