Volunteering with Refugees: Neoliberalism, Hegemony, and (Senior) Citizenship

By Erickson, Jennifer | Human Organization, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Volunteering with Refugees: Neoliberalism, Hegemony, and (Senior) Citizenship


Erickson, Jennifer, Human Organization


Refugee resettlement in the United States relies on volunteers to aid in the resettlement process. Drawing upon research in Fargo, North Dakota during 2007-2008, this paper addresses the ways in which volunteers embraced and contested hegemonic forms of "worthy" citizenship. More specifically, I compare and contrast volunteer efforts of senior citizens who worked with refugees. Both refugees and senior citizens are marginalized in the neoliberal discourse of "worthy" citizenship that stresses economic self-sufficiency. Organizations that pair these groups can go a long way to challenge mainstream understandings of race, class, gender, culture, and age. However, I examine the unquestioned, even celebrated, power that volunteers have in refugee resettlement. While some senior citizens contest social inequalities, others serve as foot soldiers for hegemonic forms of citizenship that privilege Whiteness, Christianity, a Protestant work ethic, and gendered practices of care. I show how everyday interactions between volunteers and refugees served to form and solidify social hierarchies.

Key words: volunteering, refugees, citizenship, neoliberalism, senior citizens

Introduction

On January 17, 2011, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a segment about "social entrepreneurs... business-minded people taking on some of the planet's toughest challenges: hunger, refugees, climate change" (Ludden 2011). In the subsequent six-minute program, Jennifer Ludden featured the Giving+Learning Program of Fargo, North Dakota as a model organization for such work. The program paired refugees with retired volunteers and college students to provide English language skills. I began working with the program in 2007 while conducting research with refugees and social service organizations in Fargo. This paper interrogates the problematic and necessary role that such organizations play in refugee resettlement. More broadly, it questions such organizations' role in the "changing face of the state" (Haney 2010:16), a role that results in good-hearted, well-meaning volunteers doing important and challenging work but with little training or accountability.

I explain relationships between elderly volunteers and refugees in terms of citizenship. Citizenship means membership in a group, for example, a nation. Citizenship can refer to legal membership in a country, but it also has social and economic forms. Social citizenship has to do with an individual's rights and responsibility to access education and welfare in advanced capitalist countries (Marshall 1 950), and economic citizenship is about the relationship between an individual, employment, and consumerism (Collins 2008). Broadly speaking, citizenship is about belonging to a community (Yuval-Davis 2006).

Since the 1970s, notions of "worthy" citizenship in the United States have come to mean an individual's responsibility to decrease her burden on the state, especially the welfare state (Ong 2003). Both refugees and senior citizens are marginalized in the discourse of citizenship that stress economic self-sufficiency and paid labor. In a time when more individuals, families, and low paid or nonpaid workers are being asked to carry out societal responsibilities, vulnerable populations - like refugees and senior citizens - have come to rely on these new faces of the state to assist them in accessing resources and claiming citizenship status. Both populations are molded to serve as worthy citizens, but in different ways.

Volunteers in refugee resettlement serve as foot soldiers for hegemonic forms of citizenship in comparable ways to the missionaries that Jean and John Comaroff ( 1 992) describe in their work with the Tswana in colonial South Africa. By working with refugees in homes, schools, stores, social service organizations, and churches, on an everyday level, volunteers consciously and unconsciously change the ways that refugees viewed the world. Neither volunteers nor refugees (inter)act in monolithic ways, but in one way or another, a "colonization of consciousness" occurs that serves to develop, support, and/or reform refugees' ideas about domesticity, religion, capitalism, and the state (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:235-236). …

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