Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End, by Nina Eliasoph

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Pennsylvania State University]On: 05 November 2014, At: 04:35Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Political CommunicationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upcp20

    Making Volunteers: Civic Life afterWelfare's End, by Nina EliasophStephanie E. Burkhalter aa Department of Politics , Humboldt State UniversityPublished online: 02 May 2013.

    To cite this article: Stephanie E. Burkhalter (2013) Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End,by Nina Eliasoph, Political Communication, 30:2, 325-327, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2013.776871

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2013.776871

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  • Book Reviews 325

    Feldman, L. (2013). Cloudy with a chance of heat balls: The portrayal of global warming on TheDaily Show and The Colbert Report. International Journal of Communication, 7, 430451.

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    Nisbet, M. C. (2009, March/April). Communication climate change: Why frames matter for publicengagement. Environment, pp. 1223.

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    Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfares End, by Nina Eliasoph. Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. 336 pp. $42 hardcover.

    Reviewed by STEPHANIE E. BURKHALTER

    Nina Eliasoph is a scholar known for her ethnographic approach to the everyday languageof civic engagement as practiced in volunteer-based groups. This book centers on the lan-guage and culture of Empowerment Projects, which are volunteer-based communityorganizations that have short term flexible funding from a hybrid of private, publicand/or non-profit sources. Empowerment talk, the language of empowerment projects,is characterized by its emphasis on open and inclusive, egalitarian, innovative, mul-ticultural, community-based, transparent, and unbureaucratic participation. In herresearch, Eliasoph spent 5 years as a volunteer in empowerment projects aimed at helping(empowering) disadvantaged, mostly minority youth. Her observations are often fasci-nating and frustrating because despite the well-meaning missions of these projects, theycan often operate in ways that undermine the real empowerment of the target populations.They also deploy a language that, with its emphasis on small d democracy, masks themission-based structure and rules of the grant-giving agencies and nonprofits on whichthese projects must rely.

    Eliasoph centered her participant observation in several projects organized to helpyoung people in a mid-size midwestern city she calls Snowy Prairie. She regularly con-tributed as a volunteer at Community House, an after-school and summer program foryouth who might be at risk, and attended monthly meetings and served on event-planningcommittees at the broader Regional Youth Empowerment Project. Other projects she par-ticipated in at different points in the research included a middle school after-school tutoringprogram and programs designed to promote cultural diversity among young people and inthe broader community.

    The modest goal for the work was to observe how people experience these projectsin everyday life (p. xviii) with an eye towards understanding how adults tried to puttheir hopeful ideas [for youth] in practice (p. xiii). With such broad ideas guiding herobservations, they were fairly unstructured from the beginning, and the patterns in the rug(as she calls the findings) emerged as the research proceeded. As a result, the organization

    Stephanie E. Burkhalter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Humboldt StateUniversity.

    Address correspondence to Stephanie E. Burkhalter, Department of Politics, Humboldt StateUniversity, 1 Harpst Street, Arcata, CA 95521, USA. E-mail: burkhalter@humboldt.edu

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    of the book, like the research itself, can feel a bit unstructured, and this reader longed for amethods chapter to explain precisely how Eliasoph approached recording her observationsand fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Instead of a chapter, she provides a two-and-a-half-page discussion of her field note technique.

    Eliasoph succeeds in her goal, but in a narrow way that does not quite meet the largerexpectation set by the title. The nonprofit industrial complex that characterizes civiclife at welfares end is revealed by her data and interpretation for a very limited set ofprograms. The book is at its best when she describes how the volunteers and organizersrespond to the multiple requirements they must meet to obtain funding and how methods ofempowerment meant to help actually work at cross purposes. For example, the underprivi-leged minority youth that are the target population of the programs are called volunteersalong with the non-disadvantaged, mostly White volunteers who have been recruited toparticipate in a mission to help others who are not as privileged as they are. Thus, the mes-sage is sent in the supposedly equal exchange among volunteers that the disadvantagedyouth are there because, as Eliasoph summarizes, I am slated to do poorly in school and inlife . . . I am a problem (p. 17), and the non-disadvantaged youth are there to demonstratehow goodhearted and well rounded they are for a variety of reasons, not the least of whichis to include such volunteering on their college applications.

    Another instance where non-privilege clashes with privilege is in the plug in volun-teer efforts of a middle school after-school tutoring program. In this program, mostly Whitewomen volunteers looking for a heartwarming connection with youth who are strugglingdonate a couple of hours a week of their time to help schoolchildren with their homework.Since the relationships with the children are not ongoing and the volunteer commitmentis fairly minimal, meaningful connections are rarely made, and worse, different volunteersprovide disparate and confusing advice to the same child over the course of a week. Addto that the cherry-picking of children that takes place by the volunteers who tend to shyaway from the most troubled or needy kids, and one wonders whether the program doesany good at all for the children who really need it.

    Does any empowerment of youth happen in these programs? Yes, but often not inthe ways that are justified in the grants that these organizations must continually applyfor. I recognized immediately, based on my own experience of working with working-class White and minority college students, the group that seems to benefit the most: thosetraditionally disadvantaged teenage volunteers who invest time and effort in creating andrunning the programs under the guidance of an experienced paid staff person. Eliasophsdescription of Emily, the paid staff organizer at Community House, is often touching andreminds us that without such staff these programs have very little chance of succeeding.Emilys girls build long-standing, emotional connections with her that include learninghow to be assertive without being offensive, how to call a meeting to order, chair it, and craftminutes, how to write grants that get funded, and how to measure and publicize a programssuccess. These young women will be the next Emilys returning to their communities as real,empowered leaders.

    Eliasophs prior book concerned how people do, but mostly do not, talk about politics,and here she notes that these volunteer-based programs aimed at promoting civic engage-ment through youth empowerment are strenuously apolitical in the conventional sense. Thequestions of why certain youth are at risk and other youth are not or why some popula-tions are hungry or homeless while others need not worry about basic needs are not asked,much less answered. When she brings up electoral politics, volunteer organizers and par-ticipants change the subject for no obvious reason other than politics seem irrelevant to thegoals they are trying to achieve.

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    Making Volunteers was published as part of a cultural sociology series, but Eliasophdoes not provide a discussion of the literature in which she is grounding her work, so itis difficult for the reader to understand where intellectually she sees her own work fitting(she briefly refers to a public policy literature, and her final chapter is dedicated to practicalsuggestions for policymakers regarding how to improve these well-meaning programs).Nevertheless, there is much to appreciate across disciplines like sociology, political science,communication, and public policy in Eliasophs keen observations about volunteer-basedorganizational culture, the limits of certain types of civic engagement projects, and howideas of class and race are enacted in small ways every day.

    In terms of political communication, one can place her work in an ongoing discussionabout changing forms of citizen engagement (see Schudson, 1998) and the merits of non-political volunteering as a form of youth civic engagement (see Dalton, 2007). In addition,her focus on how participants talk about their goals and actions and the language they mustuse to describe and enact their missions to gain funding will engage political communi-cation scholars. The missions of the youth empowerment programs are framed in moral,not political, terms and the organizations are explicitly nongovernmental, but the languageof the devolved welfare state that these programs deploy is suffused with power relations.Private nonprofit organizations may look more democratic than traditional welfare officesrun by bureaucrats, and in many ways they are, but the grant funders (including govern-ment entities) still make the rules, and the rules require youth participants who need help(meaning they are typically poor, Black or Latino, and urban) to make better choices thanthose in their peer group typically make. The guiding myth of programs like CommunityHouse is that all youth can be empowered, but what resonates with the reader is that fewwill be without real political change. That does not mean we should abandon empowermentprojects, but as Eliasoph suggests, we should observe them for what they are and then workto make them better.

    References

    Dalton, R. J. (2007). The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics.Washington, DC: CQ Press.

    Schudson, M. (1998). The good citizen: A history of American civic life. New York, NY: Free Press.

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