A Long-term Volunteer Story By Morgana Jolin-Thomas
Becoming so deeply involved with SCI wasn’t what I planned. I had just spent four years at university studying Economics, specialising in international economic relations so my brain was full, to the point of exploding, with the hard realities of global politics and power. I had begun my studies full of enthusiasm; I had this huge feeling inside me that with just a little bit of effort, I could solve the world’s problems. I soon became immersed in a world of economic theory, profit motives, multinational corporations and conflicts over resources. Hundreds of years of history put the state of the modern world into context. I came to realise that I wasn’t the first person to have the bright idea to try and sort out this mess.
My enthusiasm began to wither and I was soon carrying a feeling of disempowerment inside me like a cancer. I tried to get deeply involved with the student activism, I attended every march and rally. I felt my anger rise on every issue; increased university fees, children in detention centres, cuts to medicare, the war in Iraq… my blood was permanently on the boil, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that all my actions were pointless.
But I couldn’t stop caring, so I began volunteering. At first I put my energy in a lot of different places, it didn’t matter to me too much where, but just to feel useful. And I now know this to be, as described by Pierre Ceresole (the founder of SCI) the satisfaction of “deeds not words”. I decided to go part time in my job so I could spend the rest of the time volunteering, and although it sounds cheesy I really mean it when I say that what I lacked financially was ten times compensated for by the satisfaction I gained from being involved in things that really interested me.
I came across IVP Australia when searching for some more volunteering opportunities overseas. I wasn’t able to go overseas immediately, nor to do a workcamp in Australia, so it was an easy decision to get involved volunteering in the office. I learnt more and more about the projects of IVP, the philosophy behind them and the SCI network in general. As I took on more tasks I realised that I really was enjoying the communication and being surrounded by like minded people. IVP was a small group of very different people, but people with good hearts. People were open and non judgmental and I never found it hard to find my place there.
So, when I read about the opportunity to be a long term volunteer (LTV) in the International Secretariat of SCI, this is what attracted me. At first I felt hesitant about the work, I had spent years training myself to attack the world’s problems from a macro level and an economic perspective, and I couldn’t quite find the line between that and SCI. However, here I had the opportunity to put myself at the centre of a lot of people doing real practical things to make the world a better place. The position was for 12 months in Antwerpen, Belgium.
I didn’t know anything about Antwerpen. I spent a good few weeks telling people how great it would be to be able to practice my French before someone told me they speak Dutch in Antwerpen. But settling into Antwerpen was incredibly easy. The house that had been chosen for me to stay in was beautiful; high ceilings, a garden with a cat and a turtle, friendly housemates and I had a great attic room. I was lent a bike to ride to work, and my daily route took me past incredibly elegant and grand Art Nouveau houses that made me feel like I was in a fairy tale. Everything in Antwerpen oozed ‘cool’, the people are effortlessly stylish, every bar has a laidback bohemian feel and the exquisitely detailed buildings lean lazily against each other, definitely old, but not yet dilapidated.
At the office of the International Secretariat, the working and personal relationships are delightfully casual, and a line of humour runs through the days. This isn’t to say that it’s not professional, and we are certainly always busy. I spent my first few weeks with Boriana from Bulgaria, whose position I would be taking over. She was a great teacher and a wonderful person, but she wasn’t very happy to be leaving the job. And now, as I see only one month until my own departure, I can understand her entirely.
It’s not that it’s an easy job, and it can certainly be frustrating. As Office Support LTV my role covers all the standard administration tasks which can include highlights such as fixing the printer, ordering new stationary, licking envelopes, replying to hundreds of standard volunteer requests, deleting a lot of spam. However, there are two saving graces for the job; the people, and the freedom. And the combination of the two. Whilst I do spend 7 hours a day staring at a screen, 6 of those hours I am communicating with someone, whether it is by email, chatting or skype calling. To be able to not only discuss with, but help, people all around the world with their voluntary projects is rewarding, and great fun.
I have developed close relationships with many people and I very much feel part of an international family. I see my communication skills improving every day, learning about cultural sensitivities and the art of conflict resolution (that’s right, there is plenty of conflict within SCI, even as a peace organisation!). I have a much clearer understanding of how international NGO’s operate, and the balance between bureaucracy, policy, and action.
Within my position there was a capacity to be involved in other projects, or areas of SCI that interested me. I took on quite a lot of extra tasks beyond my normal job description, and thanks to this I was always challenged. Also, I was strongly supported by the staff and other LTV’s in the office. This is what I mean by freedom. I truly felt that if I had an idea, I would be supported to bring it into reality.
I became involved with the Pacifist Voluntary Projects ‘campaign’ within SCI. This is part of the SCI 2004 – 2009 Strategic Plan, a guideline for action. The PVP campaign aims to increase the number of voluntary projects organised by SCI that have an obvious element of peace building and peace education. This can mean many things such as; daily study or discussion sessions on peace building (at a personal, societal or governmental level), that the work involves active campaigning, or that the project focuses on one particular conflict (for example the Isreal-Palestine conflict) and seeks to educate others and encourage thought on the topic.
I was able to be on the preparation team for the PVP Seminar in Bulgaria. This meant that I was involved in the planning, development of the objectives, the programme, managing the budget, selecting participants and trainers, organising content and logistics, hosting the days sessions and facilitating discussions and exercises. It was stressful, but always exhilarating, and the seminar was a huge success. I learnt so much about teamwork, about myself, about leadership skills, and of course, about PVP’s.
My other side projects included working on the new international website. For this I worked in close contact with the SCI Tech Team and I learnt a huge amount about website content management, layout and html. This was one of my favourite projects because I had so much freedom to be creative, write texts and propose my ideas. I discovered a small passion for the creative element of media and communications. Following this I worked again with the Tech Team to remake the international Space for Peace website, which is a space for activists to exchange materials relating to peace education activities, for example workshop guidelines or lesson plans on topics such as human rights, anti-racism, war and disarmament etc. Check out the sites at www.sciint.org and www.spaceforpeace.net !
I also went to a Group Leadership training in Moldova and a Summer University (Project Management skills) training in Scotland. In Belgium I visited a number of workcamps and spoke about the ideology of SCI. I became involved with the local branch (VIA-Belgium) and have met many of their incoming volunteers from all around the world.
So, as I said, at first I was a bit skeptical of the work of SCI, I couldn’t quite see how it had earned the right to call itself a peace organisation, when I had spent so many years learning about the complexity of war. But as time goes by I realise how invaluable it is to feel empowered, and to be useful. I always remember the quote “bad things happen when good people do nothing” and think back to how helpless I felt. SCI gives people an opportunity to make real change that they can see and experience first hand. Whilst sometimes I still get frustrated by the lack of discussion of such big and important issues such as resource distribution and weapons manufacturing, I can see now that real action on the small issues is as important as discussion of the big issues.
Now, as my time here comes to an end, I am looking forward to do some workcamps, and to stay involved with SCI in different ways. I will stay active on the PVP issue, hope to still be involved with the website development, and, as I will move to England for a while, get involved with IVS, the British branch of SCI. I’m looking forward to seeing how another branch operates, and most of all I am looking forward to come back to IVP and get involved there again.