Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Folklife Festival, Day 2 - The Tedium and Inefficiency of Volunteering

Thursday I arrived at the Festival and was directed to the Campus and Community section to work as a stage aid at The Commons, a medium-sized space with a wooden cross-hatch roof and several benches underneath.  This is where discussion panels would be presenting throughout the day on the topics you can see listed here:


My job was to "assist as needed." I assumed that meant helping DJ, the sound technician assigned to that stage; Katie, the intern in charge of these particular events; and the various participants who would be presenting.  However, aside from fetching DJ an iced tea early on in the day, there was absolutely nothing for me to do.  I watched the first presentation, a talk about the culture, language, and music of Old Mines, Missouri.  I enjoyed the trivia they noted about the French dialect of the region, and the demonstration of some of their traditional songs:


However, while the topics were interesting, it was still tedious to sit in the sun and the heat for so long. I was glad when DJ shooed me away, telling me to go take a walk and check back in later. 

 I went to the Castle to use the air conditioning and the restrooms, then wandered around the Campus and Community displays to check out what the various universities were promoting. There was a Test Kitchen with demonstrations; a "dinosaur dig" from the University of Montana; a slew of tech gadgets from various schools; cultural demonstrations (music and dance) from New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii; and several agricultural displays to talk about sustainability and organic gardening. 

 I checked back in at The Commons and found that there was still nothing for me to do, so I went in search of the Lead Volunteer for that area. Scott asked me what my interests were so he could find work that I would find interesting. I named a few things, but emphasized 1) I find almost everything interesting and 2) I wanted to go where work is needed rather than somewhere that matches my interests. Scott eagerly shuttled me around to various booths and stages, asking the interns at each if they could use me. None of them had any need for additional help. After four booths I pulled Scott aside.  "It sounds like you really don't need me today," I said. 

"Well, not right now it seems, but we always get busier at the end of the day," he admitted apologetically. 

"That's fine," I said. "How about this? You have my cell phone number. I'll go grab lunch and check out some of the museums and if something comes up I can help with, give me a call."  He seemed both uncertain and relieved by this suggestion, but gave me his cell phone number in case he forgot to call me (he did seem unorganized) and scurried away. 

I went to the Museum of American History, mostly because it was the closest to me at this point and I yearned for air conditioning. I also dropped by the Freer Museum to see the Peacock Room again, before heading back to the Campus and Community section to find Scott. I think he still felt badly about not having work for me, and yet he didn't want to just let me go (which I offered to do) because he was certain they'd need me for the end-of-the-day cleanup. 

"You know what would be great?" he said. "The Hawaiians just took off for the rest of the day - they have some sort of presentation in another part of town. Would you mind sitting at their stage and telling anyone who stops by that they will be back tomorrow?" And thus for 45 minutes I did what a piece of paper and a Sharpie could do just as well.

About 30 minutes from the end of the festival, Scott came back over and asked me to go to the University of Illinois tent to assist with their cleanup when it was time. Their focus was on their bio-medical engineering programs. I chatted with the college students who had come along to present their prototypes, which included sculptures to help blind students understand and memorize mathematical principles and formulas, fashionable heels that are compatible with wheelchair footrests, chin-strap styluses for quadriplegics, and hearing-aids designed to look like jewelery. At the appointed time I helped the people at the tent pack up and store their various wheelchair prototypes and display tables. Then I checked out at the Volunteer Booth and headed home. 

It was not nearly as productive a day as the one before, yet this type of disorganization and uselessness is not atypical in my work as a volunteer.  I think the Smithsonian was overstaffed (I heard there were over 630 volunteers, although I assume that's cumulative over the length of the whole festival, in addition to their interns, temporary help, and regular employees) and there was not enough organization to sufficiently use the volunteers they had.  It is difficult to work with volunteers, yes.  Not because they are difficult people or even bad workers, but rather because they are outsiders to your organization and it is hard to set up work for people who know nothing about your expectations or procedures.  It is certainly not impossible to do, but it is rare to see a project of this scale use their volunteers effectively.

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