Do firebrands take summer vacation?
Summer has arrived in Denmark. Around the country, vacations are being registered into complicated digital systems; the last meetings have been put in the calendar – or have been postponed – and the mail looks forward to being on auto-reply. But what about the refugees – our new citizens, who make every effort to get to know our language and culture as they struggle to get a foot in the door on the Danish labor market and in society in general? Do these people take summer vacation from their difficult living conditions? And what about climate change, poverty or loneliness among the elderly and the young?
The point of this depressing list is not to darken the bright summer nights but simply to ask a single question: When social and global problems are not taking a summer vacation, what do the firebrands do, these highly prized heroes of civil society who are passionate about taking charge of complex community problems? In other words: Do firebrands take summer vacation? And if they don’t, who takes care of them so that they don’t burn out?
In our collective tribute to firebrands, do we tend to ignore the gloomy side of their passionate commitment – the dark side so to speak? The gloomy side of being a firebrand, or an “active or activist civilian” (as per Thomas Boje’s concepts), is the risk of burning out. This risk seems particularly imminent for those volunteers who are involved with problems that exist across summer vacations, closing times, borders and other community boundaries.
That it can be difficult to set limits for one’s commitment as a volunteer is not a fundamentally new issue. Within the so-called traditional, member-based forms of volunteering, there rarely is a very clear framework for how or how much to commit. One of the things that attracts volunteers (including firebrands) and keeps them coming back is indeed that the world of volunteering represents a less regulated, framework-based and performance-focused world. In addition, certain types of volunteering, such as the activist form, which aims to create change at a societal level, often attract idealistic people, who would like to give an extra hour, or even 14 extra hours, if it makes a difference to others and if it changes “the big picture”.
As volunteering is moving from member-based forms of participation towards more individualized and activity-based forms, it is more and more up to the individual to choose their type of participation and their degree of commitment. This increases the importance for firebrands and leaders of firebrands (and of volunteers in general) to safeguard breaks, vacations and other boundaries.
Boundaries are important – especially when talking about firebrands – because these are civil society’s pioneers, who are investing their visions, creativity and energy in projects that lie in uncharted territory. When people are creating something new and realizing a vision in a field for which there are no well-established frameworks, rules and rituals yet, where do the boundaries to their activity levels lie?
As I will show below in three examples, the importance of boundaries becomes all the clearer when we move away from broad tributes and take a closer look at the specific organizations and life situations that surround the firebrands and that interact with their participation.
In 2011, the Center for Ungdomsforskning (CEFU) published a nationwide survey on well-being and “ill-being” among young people between the ages of 15 and 24 (1). For this study, researchers from CEFU spoke with Danish youths across the country, who had one or more forms of “ill-being”. One of the interviews that most clearly springs to mind today took place in an apartment on the outskirts of Copenhagen with a young woman who was in her early 20s. In her response to a preliminary questionnaire, she had expressed clear signs of stress, depression and loneliness. In light of what I later learned about volunteers and firebrands, the woman I met in the apartment on outer Nørrebro could in many ways be characterized as a burned out firebrand. For the last five years prior to the interview, the young woman had been associated with a youth policy organization that worked for a more equal and inclusive society. She had been passionate about this work. She had attended meetings until late at night, participated in demonstrations at all given occasions and committed wholeheartedly to finding resources for the organization’s activities. There was always something to do, and (as most firebrands) she was not the type to leave a meeting or abandon a task before it was done. Society cannot save itself, was her opinion. At one point it had become too much. She tried to withdraw slowly from the demanding political work, but there was always more than a full-time job left to do – and who would take over her duties? Withdrawing or spending less time was difficult to do. Who would take her place at meetings? Instead, one day she was hit by a severe, stress-induced depression, which she was still struggling with the day we talked, even though her eyes shone bright when she described her past as a political activist. To me, this young woman is the prototype of those we pay tribute to: the uncompromising idealists who lead the way, against the system and for the benefit of their fellow human beings. We have to take care of these people!
In stark contrast to this boundless commitment, for more than a year and a half, I followed the organization Lektier Online, which engaged young university students in cities across Denmark (2). These young volunteers also stated that they were passionate about making a difference for schoolkids from socially disadvantaged neighborhoods whom they helped with their homework through a virtual platform. Contrary to the organizational framework of the political youth organization, this organization was characterized by having several boundaries in place. As a volunteer, you could only take a maximum of two shifts of 2–3 hours per month, for a minimum of six months (if you wanted to receive a certificate). The virtual homework assistance sessions could only be maximum 45 minutes long, and only 30 minutes long if there were many students in the virtual queue. In addition, prior to the virtual homework assistance session, the schoolkids had to define one specific task they wanted help with, and the volunteering homework assistants were carefully instructed not to help with anything other than this one task. The schoolkids had to take any other problems to other forums. In addition, the schoolkids logged on to the virtual page with an anonymous profile and the virtual meeting took place on a virtual platform on which they communicated using a headset and a camera – which they often switched off to just “chat” with the volunteers. In many ways, this was therefore a meeting with very strong boundaries but, to my surprise, both schoolkids and volunteers found the many boundaries beneficial. To the volunteers, precisely the opportunity to provide focused, delimited efforts that were not socially invasive – and to make a concrete difference – was appealing. When asked directly, it appeared that it was primarily the activity itself (homework assistance) and not the organization that attracted the volunteers. Whether or not the volunteers at Lektier Online can be called firebrands I don’t want to decide here. In any case, these were deeply committed young people, who were often active in several organizations, which was possible because they were not required to commit their entire lives in every organization.
The third and last example I include here lies in between boundless and strongly defined commitment and derives from an ongoing study on cooperation between civil society and the public sector in relation to vulnerable refugees and elderly people (3). The study is only in its first phase but I can repeat an exchange from one of the projects we are following, which made an impression. At a meeting of representatives of an organization that works with refugees, I asked one of the volunteers whether an activity for refugees went on over the summer. “Yes,” the volunteer replied, “refugees don’t take summer vacation, as far as I know, so I don’t think the activity should take a break either”. To this, one of the other volunteers objected: “You may be right but remember to take care of yourself anyway”. As this volunteer pointed out afterwards: it would neither be in the refugees’ nor the volunteers’ interests if someone burned out. This exchange is, in my opinion, a good example of the small conversations that can help firebrands and other volunteers to hang on – without burning out. Both at management level and among volunteers, it is important to say, “take care of yourself”, and to support this care organizationally, so that it feels quite legitimate to take a vacation and to set boundaries, even though refugee flows and other societal challenges are continual problems. However, if the organization sets boundaries for voluntary commitment, then does the special logic of volunteering not get lost, one could ask. From what I have observed, no – is the short answer. Rather, there will be what one might call organizational care.
As I join the unreserved tribute and honor that is bestowed on firebrands across the stories here on Civilian and in the rest of the public space, these three examples will illustrate the importance of boundaries – both on the individual and the organizational level. The challenge must be to find a middle way, between absent boundaries and controlling boundaries, where commitment has a place without draining the committed. And let me finish with an invitation to all firebrands to take a well-deserved summer vacation! It is the best thing to do – both for themselves and for society’s problems.
Ane Grubb, Postdoc, PhD, Aalborg Universitet
Read more here:
1) Sørensen, N.U., Grubb, A., Warring Madsen, I. and Nielsen, J.C. (2011): “Når det er svært at være ung i DK: unges beretninger om mistrivsel og ungdomsliv”
Publisher: Center for Ungdomsforskning, DPU, Aarhus University
2) Grubb, A. (2016): “Vi skal bare hjælpe og spise chokoladekiks – En kvalitativ undersøgelse af unge frivilliges deltagelse i en ikke-medlemsbaseret, digitalt koordineret organiseringsform af frivilligt socialt arbejde”. PhD Dissertation.
Publisher: Aalborg University Press.
3) Aalborg Universitet: “Samskabelse mellem offentlige og frivillige aktører”.