Sometimes it’s way too easy to be an armchair activist. When it comes to addressing the world’s problems, I used to prefer using hashtags and status updates instead of contributing my time and skills. For years, most of my attempts to volunteer were halfhearted at best: one afternoon pulling weeds in a school garden or wrapping Christmas gifts for a local charity.
There were needs in my community that required more than a once-a-year commitment, but I always had reasons for why I couldn’t be the one to meet them. I blamed my personality (“Well, I’m an introvert.”), my schedule (“I’m just so busy.”), and my hobbies (“I haven’t found a volunteer opportunity that matches my interests.”) (As if there was a nonprofit somewhere looking for people who liked recreational jogging and reading World War II novels.)
A few years ago, however, one conversation opened my eyes to my complacency. Following the 2016 election, I had been spending a lot of time online. Everyone was fired up about something and I was no exception. One issue that continually captured my attention was immigration.
For a few nights in a row, it was a regular topic of our dinner conversation until my husband finally said something that stopped me mid-rant. He said he hoped I could find a way to channel my anger about the issue. To use my anger so that it didn’t go to waste.
Until that moment, I thought I was using my anger. I consumed endless news stories, wrote thinly veiled political posts on social media, and discussed the issue with people who shared my views. I attended a conference at my church where speakers taught about immigration law, refugee resettlement, and the intersection of Christian faith and social justice. I took very good notes.
In other words: I did nothing.
The problem was—until that dinner conversation—it didn’t feel like nothing. Wielding big emotions online and continually filling my head with information felt productive. But was it? Because the truth was, there were hundreds of newly arrived immigrants living in my own midwestern city and I had never had a meaningful conversation with a single one. I couldn’t tell you their names, the countries they came from, or their reasons for being here.
I was an “armchair activist,” but what my city really needed was people who were willing to give their time, energy, resources, and skills in real life.
I had heard that one way to help immigrants was to be a volunteer ESL tutor. The day after that convicting conversation, I signed up to be one. My city has an incredible nonprofit called Literacy Network that specializes in adult literacy. They provide free ESL, computer skills, GED, and citizenship classes. Last year they served more than 1,000 people (many of them first-generation immigrants and refugees) and had more than 600 volunteers.
When I first signed up to be an ESL tutor with Literacy Network, I was enthusiastic. But by the time I sat waiting in the classroom that first night, I was deeply nervous and full of second guesses. I shuffled through the worksheets for that week’s lesson and thought: Maybe this was a mistake.
It wasn’t. Being an ESL tutor has come with a learning curve, but I feel more connected to my community than ever before and more engaged with the world. In our classes, we teach adults language skills that help them navigate situations that most English speakers take for granted: doctor’s appointments, job interviews, parent/teacher conferences, grocery shopping, car repairs.
But in addition to our challenging weekly lessons, there’s also a lot of conversation practice. I’ve been humbled as I’ve learned to see the world through the eyes of our adult learners (Literacy Network’s term for the students in our classes). And I’ve heard firsthand accounts of situations that I had previously only seen in my newsfeed.
I’ve learned about the political situation in Venezuela from a woman who recently fled from it. In tears, she described the beauty of her country, how much she loved it, yet how impossible living there had become. Back home, she was the vice president of marketing for a large company. Here she works in housekeeping at a local hospital.
I’ve learned about Mexico from a young woman who grew up there in a close-knit community. She does intense physical work with a landscape company nearly every day but dreams of becoming a nurse so she can help people who have multiple sclerosis like her younger brother. For her—like so many people I’ve met—learning English is an important step in reaching her goals and building a better life.
These are just a couple of the many stories and experiences I’ve heard. And I know that as I continue this work, I’ll hear many more and continue to be changed.
My community is not unique. No matter where you live, it’s likely there are organizations and people who can use your time and skills. If you feel a pull do something but don’t know what, here are some suggestions:
Pay attention to your indicator light.
Psychologists say that anger is often a secondary emotion, meaning that it tends to be an indicator light. When you stop to investigate anger, there’s usually another emotion hiding below the surface: anxiety, fear, grief. When I examined my own anger about this particular issue, I could see a sense of injustice and care for others at its root. But I also saw something else: helplessness and worry. My anger was telling me to do something and I finally listened. As you look at the issues in our world today, what is your anger (or other big emotion) telling you?
Step away from social media for a while.
As I previously said, before I started volunteering I spent a lot of time on news sites and social media. But these habits were simply feeding my anger while denying it a constructive outlet. I had to step away and find a way to engage in the real world.
The environmental movement of the 1970s popularized the slogan “think globally, act locally” but I think it applies to so much more. It’s a good reminder to keep a global perspective while focusing on the needs and people right in front of you. If you want to volunteer but don’t know where to start, find an organization in your community that’s addressing an issue you care about. Volunteer Match is a national website that allows you to search for volunteer opportunities based on cause and geography.
One unexpected result of my volunteer experience is that it has opened my eyes to the people who are quietly doing good in our world—my fellow volunteers plus the adult learners themselves and the people who show up in their lives. They’re not making headlines but they’re making a difference nonetheless.
Last year, I tutored a man from China. I’ll call him James. James frequently talked about his American neighbor. She lived next door to James and his family, a woman with two kids of her own. This woman invited James’s family to her home, helped them navigate tricky cultural situations, and was a dependable friend to James’s wife who would otherwise be isolated because of her limited English. James spoke warmly of her friendship and what it meant to his family.
All of the immigrants I’ve worked with have stories like this: ordinary people doing the ordinary work of being a good neighbor, coworker, or friend. And whether we volunteer or not, we can all aspire to that.
If you’re interested in learning more about immigration and the issues facing immigrants in the U.S., one organization you can check out is World Relief. This is the organization that first made me aware of ESL tutoring opportunities. I’ve also started watching the new Netflix documentary series Living Undocumented. It’s heartbreaking but I think it provides important context for some of the immigration issues we’re facing today.