By Sam van Heerden, Masters in Philosophy student
Many volunteers might join Rhodes University’s Engaged Citizen Programme (ECP) because they want to help ‘the community’, but it is as one of the student leaders for the programme writes boldly on his purple shirt, “I do community engagement because I am a part of the community.”
Just under three hundred volunteers attended the annual ECP training held at Eden Grove over the weekend. There they learnt that they are all a part of the community and can work together to make it a more empowering and equitable space.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, and this is reflected in the disparities between the West of Grahamstown/Makhanda, where Rhodes University lies, and the East side of the town. “[But] community development doesn’t need us,” said Director of Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE), Diana Hornby, at the training session. “Development [in Grahamstown East] has been happening for years without us and people have survived under impossible situations.”
The model of community engagement used by RUCE office emphasises progress through partnership through helping to improve the well-being of a group by working together in a way that is mutually beneficial. Students should not go into volunteering with a ‘saviour complex’, as this creates unequal power relations.
Hornby stated that volunteers should leave their sympathy at home and rather bring their skills, time, and compassion to community projects. Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Academic & Student Affairs, Dr. Chrissie Boughey, said volunteers should also bring the theory they learn in the classroom to their volunteering. “This theory can help us imagine alternative futures,” she said.
Last year, Grahamstown/Makhanda achieved its highest matric pass rate ever, and the number of pupils who sat down to write their matric exams was the highest the town has ever seen. Hornby holds that the student energy across different community projects, such as Ikamva Youth Eastern Cape and the GADRA Nine-Tenths mentoring programme, contributed significantly to these results.
But community projects also draw significantly off of the skills and knowledge of community members. “Development is not about things,” says Hornby, “It’s about human beings and encouraging their agency.” At the training, volunteers watched interviews with Makhanda residents who have used their own skills to improve their well-being through diverse projects such as growing their own vegetable gardens, sewing, or collecting litter.
Students learnt that volunteering is also meant to be a process of learning. “Your volunteering is not just something you do in your free time, it is central to your education and the graduate you will become at this university,” said Dr Boughey, who emphasised that students will begin to see the world differently through their experiences. Zodwa Goje from the Raphael Centre says that volunteering might even unlock skills and talents that students do not know they have.
But more importantly, volunteering also involves unlearning. “The most important thing you can bring to your community engagement is an open mind and a willingness to be challenged,” said Sesonasipho Yedwa, the recipient of the Student Volunteer of the Year Award for 2018. “You might find that your way is not the only way, and you will learn and grow.”
According to Yedwa, volunteers should also approach community engagement with loyalty. It is not about the certificate or the CV. Before volunteers are students, they are citizens and members of a community that stretches beyond the bounds of this campus. “You need to come here with a genuine heart,” he urged.
Another student volunteer and leader, Ubenathi Sisusa, reminded volunteers that they do not have to be perfect. “Acknowledge your mistakes and grow,” she said. Student leader Asakhe Cuntsulana concurred, “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and show humility. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Volunteers were given journals at the training in order to encourage their learning. Their purpose is to document experiences, reflections, and growth. The RUCE office also now offers various short courses to aid to the learning of their volunteers, such as a tutoring course, a reading clubs orientation short course, and an isiXhosa short course.
The ECP programme is now itself an accredited short course. Through it, volunteers can expect to deepen their place in the community, and together with community partnerships can help to move Makhanda forward.
RUCE’s 9/10s Training was also held at Eden Grove during the weekend of 23-24 February. Reading Clubs Orientation will be taking place on 2 and 9 March at the Department of Literary Studies in English, and Tutor Training is being held on the weekend of 2-3 March at the Education Faculty.