Self-Selecting into a Product – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm

The pragmatism of modern corporate-speak is almost gorgeous. I mean, where else can you find such literal speech? Phrases like “learnings to take away” (no, not a kind of fried gangly meat from a fast food joint), “impactful experience” and “multi-session explorations” are so much more reaching and ambitious than “stuff we learned today,” “interesting,” and “lots of different periods of time talking about the same thing.”


I didn’t really expect to come across corpo-talk in the volunteer sector; but then, I should’ve given New York credit. The non-profit sector has long been privatized here and washing a granny’s feet is just another product to market to eager CV fillers. I was impressed though, by the confidence of the woman who lead my volunteer orientation session this morning at New York Cares. A wee small woman, she was defiantly interested in construction, and liked public speaking. She strode back and forth in front of the large assembly of CV fillers and projected her voice like a banshee. Now that’s something I’d like to learn.


New York Cares coordinates around 53,000 active volunteers every year, who in turn support around 1,200 non-profits in the city. It’s New Yorks oldest (best, biggest, probably made the Guinness Book of Records – as is the style of this country) volunteer organization and its stature and scale must necessitate some of the things that, ironically, make it seem so unhuman. Like the automated sign-up and account activation, the corpo-talk, and the computerized help line. I worked with a New York Cares volunteer last year, she was roped into helping me to run a “movement, dance and writing” workshop I made up one morning and then presented to children at a literacy festival in West Harlem. I encouraged the kids to run around and jump and fly and get in touch with their inner creative soul-force spirit, and then sit down and write about it with markers. The volunteer did most of the running around, after kids who went screaming out the door and then came back to throw markers and paper at me. I kept thinking to myself – how did they get someone to volunteer for this? And why is she doing it willingly? Answer: The Product.


While New York Cares does not have a Product under the umbrella of its Hunger Campaign that caters specifically to placements in overnight shelters, it can send me to serve potatoes. I’m serving dinner potatoes at the Rescue Mission too now, and I think I’m going to get pretty good at it.


Food service places me in a shelter or an outreach center, where I get to feel like I’m doing something, and I get to hear people’s stories. I still have this association I can’t shake though. Whenever I think of serving food in a New York City soup kitchen, I remember the words of my writing professor last year. She told me she worked in a soup kitchen for many years but then realized one day that she was really just a dilettante, a social do-gooder who wasn’t helping anyone.  This was just after she’d told me that writing about my pain/frustration/empathy for homelessness was ineffectual if I didn’t actually do anything about homelessness. Pretty baffling. I don’t think I’m a dilettante, but still, the suggestion was that the danger is lurking there, in the corner of the soup kitchen. Behind the unwashed spuds there’s apathy, apparently, just waiting for the chance to plug me with its tentacles.


Watch out: this is just one of the many dangers of social-service work. Fortunately, we live in changed times, I should tell her. Now, there’s no longer any need to bear the burden of ignorance! With a click of a button I can “opt out” of any volunteer work that winds up offering too much of an… impactful, experience.


  1. “This was just after she’d told me that writing about my pain/frustration/empathy for homelessness was ineffectual if I didn’t actually do anything about homelessness.”

    Really a writing professor told you word to inspire others, or deal with your thought were ineffectual… not a cry from your heart to help others. sad

  2. Yes, it’s a real learning process to keep the balance between sharing openly and taking onboard criticism designed to be constructive, while overlooking that which is not helpful…

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