When I first applied to be a volunteer for ARSP and got interested in the program, I was confident in my decision and my wish to work for a social justice program. Germans have always had such a hate/love relationship with the USA and I felt like nonprofit work embodied all the things that this country is so much better at than us: The excitement for new ideas, the will to keep moving and not give up, the passion for a political cause. Of course being here now, the emotions connected to political figures or movements make me feel uncomfortable from time to time, but I still believe that these feelings are what motivates people to make great change.
Now I'm here as a fellow of a nonprofit organization called Cradles to Crayons. We supply Chicagoland children who live in low income or homeless situations with essential items like clothing, books, toys, hygiene, bedding and school supplies. We are volunteer based, which means that almost daily we have 10-200 people in our warehouse, sorting through our product donations we collect from all over the city and the suburbs. They quality check and age/size everything out, so that our partner nonprofits can order customized packages of essential items (called 'Kidpacks') for the children that they serve.
My role is called 'ARSP Operations Fellow', which means I am a lot in the warehouse, thinking about how to stream line our processes and how to store things smartly. I also lead a lot of these volunteer groups and work for providing them with the best possible experience, while helping out my colleagues with distributing the Kidpacks as well.
I feel that here in Illinois (and possibly anywhere else too) nonprofit services are in a sense social justice work. 1 in 3 Chicagoland children live in poverty or low income situations in our target age range of 0-12 and 99% of the children we serve are not white; that is not a coincidence. There is great economic and social injustice in this city and the stories that I encounter on an everyday basis often leave me angry and sad.
A sign on one of our walls reads 'Quality = Dignity' because Cradles to Crayons believes that giving these children items of great quality gives them dignity and pride. And giving dignity and pride to children that are systemically oppressed is, as I believe, a political act. Still, I often feel that this is actually not the place to challenge these systemically oppressive systems, as we rely on individual and corporate donors who may have a differing political opinion or might not want to be associated with something political at all. The volunteer experience in itself is something that cultivates many donors for us. In our wrap up speech we hold at each end of a volunteer shift, the goal is to first make the volunteers feel good about the work they did the past two hours and then ask them for money. That is something I struggled with in the beginning especially: How can I tell these major corporate executives they solved poverty by donating two hours of their time? How can I make these suburbia families feel good about Chicago and childhood poverty if this is changing only a fracture of these kids’ lives and they still grow up in criminalized neighborhoods with underfunded schools?
By now, with the help of my colleagues, I feel like I have found the right words to use when I talk about our mission and the children in Chicago who live in low income or crisis situations. For me, it's all about stressing that we are providing resources that every child deserves no matter what. We are not saviors or heroes for doing that, and our donors are neither. Of course, we rely on monetary funds to keep our operation running and our nonprofit partners and the children they serve rely on us to provide them with product. But at the end of the day, I just want to make sure I speak to everyone the same way, no matter if Cradles relies on them or they rely on Cradles.
That might seem like a very mundane and logical thing to do, but still I sometimes feel like it is the most political thing I do here and the most important thing I learn. Never in my life before have had I interacted with this have many wealthy individuals, as well as I never before been this closely confronted with poverty. I try not to be afraid of either.