questions for the social movement post Ferguson

(Washington, DC) The social ferment following the Ferguson verdict looks bigger to me than Occupy, and bigger than the other nascent US social movements that I can recall from personal experience, going back to the 1980s.

That is a subjective impression based on my social networks, personal interests, and preferred news sources, but I have talked to reporters who feel the same way. [link added later.] The unrest taps much deeper and broader concerns than the recent shootings and legal decisions themselves. It is a response to trends as large as the incarceration crisis and the fraught condition of America’s poor communities of color. As my colleague Peniel Joseph writes, “Multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational Americans have swarmed the streets in vast numbers to not only protest against racial injustice but to expose systemic oppression that has been an open secret since the heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s.” They are developing the “WUNC” elements of a successful social movement that Charles Tilly identified:

  • Worthiness: moral standing in the eyes of the country;
  • Unity: Despite  demographic, ideological, and regional diversity, a sense that participants stand together;
  • Numbers: Marches, die-ins, etc., signify that many people stand together;
  • Commitment: Getting arrested, standing up to speak—these and other actions demonstrate commitment.

Many of my friends are involved in this nascent movement, in body and/or soul, and I see a lot of potential myself. But what I can offer at this moment are some relatively abstract thoughts about the challenges that face such movements in general. (By the way, we should not expect a uniform response to any of these challenges. Internal debates will yield a variety of approaches, and that is healthy.)

1. Participants must decide on their level of diagnosis. Confronted with the Ferguson verdict, some people think the problem is the control that prosecutors exercise over grand juries. Then a solution might involve special prosecutors. A totally different kind of diagnosis says that the problem is racism, as a relatively invariant underlying force in American life. When de jure segregation ended, racism was like a pool of water that needed a new outlet, and mass incarceration followed. In that case, the only solution would be some direct, frontal attack on racism. Many other theories are available, and they are not all mutually exclusive, but they suggest very different strategies. My own view is that social problems can rarely be divided into foundational causes and superficial effects. They are usually complex systems of reciprocal causes. That is an argument against treating the largest available abstraction, such as racism, as the main target. But this is debatable, and it will be debated.

2. Participants must choose a target. Occupy chose Wall Street: that was the original name of the movement. But Occupy never found a way to press Wall Street itself. The institutions that Occupy most effectively challenged were public universities, like UC-Davis, and big cities, like Oakland, where conflicts with the police made the institutions look bad. This was a case, in my opinion, in which one target was chosen but a different one was hit. After Ferguson, the question is again where to direct confrontation and how to make sure that the intended target receives the pressure.

3. Related to the question of diagnoses and targets is the matter of demands. What will the movement call for, and what will it accept?

4. Participants will have to figure out their relationship to formal institutions, such as governments, parties, the mass media, and universities. I have been asked whether I expect the movement to start running candidates or rather to eschew electoral politics because it looks so corrupt and unresponsive. I think it is far too early to say. Social movements often begin in their own spaces, apart from institutions that they perceive as hostile and unreformable. Especially during that phase, it is appropriate for some participants to say that they stand apart from the system. Such statements do not rule out later engagement with formal processes.

5. Participants must demand attention in a competitive space. Social movements typically say that business as usual must stop because their issue is too important to allow regular activities to continue. That is often a valid claim, actually. But it competes against many other such claims. Right now, for instance, a serious case can be made that all Americans must demand criminal prosecution of the torture authorizers during the Bush Administration. Inaction makes us complicit in felonious torture. Not to mention climate change and campaign finance, which just got worse yesterday. Social movements must  claim attention while somehow navigating rival claims.

6. The movement will have to address the usual tensions between prominent leadership and decentralized activism; honoring the heritage of past work while demanding new directions and giving space to young leaders; and staying relatively small and pure versus broadening and potentially losing focus.

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journalism students fill the news gap on Miami’s sea level rise

Robert Gutsche reports that South Florida news outlets are not covering the rise of sea levels, even though they pose an existential threat to Miami and its environs. Partly as a result of the news silence, “civic and economic leaders in South Florida aren’t talking about what’s ahead for us.” In response, Florida International University journalism students are building Eyes on the Rise to fill this important news gap. Working, in part, with local high school students, the FIU journalism students are collecting their own hydrological data with remote sensors, producing original reporting, raising awareness, and engaging public audiences. This project is a promising approach to educating the college students, and it turns the journalism program into a local news asset–much as medical schools provide health care through teaching hospitals. It thus falls at the intersection of citizen science (and Civic Science), experiential civic education/service-learning at both the college and high school levels, public journalism, media reform, and civic environmentalism.

This, by the way, is one of a dozen projects being funded by the Online News Association that my colleagues and I are currently evaluating. Stay tuned.


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pigeon-guided missiles and ancient Chinese paddleboat gunships

I read Wikipedia so that you don’t have to. You can just stop by here to learn that …

1. During WWII, the behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner put pigeons inside missiles. The view in front of each missile was projected via a camera obscura onto the wall, and the pigeon was trained to peck at images of ships. Because the bird had an electrode attached to its beak, its pecks steered the missile toward its naval target. Skinner demonstrated that his prototype worked using the following film. The Navy brass, however, refused to fund the implementation stage.

2. Speaking of naval war, during the Battle of Caishi (1161), the Song forces successfully deployed ships described thus in Hai Qiu Fu (“Rhapsodic Ode on the Sea-eel Paddle Wheel Warships”):

The men inside them paddled fast on the treadmills, and the ships glided forwards as though they were flying, yet no one was visible on board. The enemy thought that they were made of paper. Then all of a sudden a thunderclap bomb was let off. It was made with paper (carton) and filled with lime and sulphur. (Launched from trebuchets) these thunderclap bombs came dropping down from the air, and upon meeting the water exploded with a noise like thunder, the sulphur bursting into flames. The carton case rebounded and broke, scattering the lime to form a smoky fog, which blinded the eyes of men and horses so that they could see nothing. Our ships then went forward to attack theirs, and their men and horses were all drowned, so that they were utterly defeated.[38]

3. On a more peaceful note, the family who served as Grand Vizirs to the great Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad (including the most famous Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid) came from a long line of respected Buddhist abbots from the city of Balkh, now in Afghanistan.

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Obama faces the new organizers

Peter Dreier has a great piece on President Obama’s background as a community organizer. The priceless photograph above comes from Dreier’s article. I also explore this aspect of the president’s past in We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 152-161.

Dreier writes, “But Obama seemed to abandon his affinity for organizing soon after he entered the White House. He tried to be a consensus-builder, eschewing conflict, even with those in Congress and in corporate boardrooms who pledged not only to defeat his policy agenda but also to undermine his legitimacy as president.”

Indeed, Obama’s consensus-building contrasts with the confrontational style of community organizing that he employed on occasion in Chicago in the 1980s and that he faced recently when he met a group of young leaders in the White House. As movingly recalled by Phillip Agnew, the White House meeting was a frank exchange between “a community in active struggle against state sanctioned killing, violence and repression” (on one side) and the leader of that very state, the former community organizer turned POTUS (on the other). Agnew concludes:

We walked out of that meeting unbought and unbowed. We held no punches. There was no code-switching or bootlicking; no concessions, politicking or posturing. The movement got this meeting. Unrest earned this invite, and we can’t stop.

If we don’t get what we came for, we will shut it down. President Obama knows that and we know it. No meeting can stop that.

I’d only complicate the contrast in one way. Obama was trained in confrontational tactics but also in relational organizing. Frank C. Pierson, who is an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer in Durham, NC, says that the IAF network’s “relational culture is characterized by positive valuation of relationships themselves as well as the capacity for collaborative action they generate.  Relationships tested in the crucible of public action when sustained over time can forge lasting political friendships within, between and outside IAF organizations.” Scott Reed, the executive director of the PICO organizing network, told me recently that he and his colleagues strive “to develop relational capital.” The veteran organizer Gerald Taylor recalls the reason that a Maryland IAF affiliate called BUILD defeated the NRA:

Thousands of people were talked with and listened to. Questions about the nature of community and the relative merits of a law that was not perfect were discussed. In short, people were taken seriously as citizens.

BUILD members met with Senator Paul Sarbanes, who asked them their “demands.” “‘None,’ they responded, to the senator’s amazement. ‘We came here to find out what your interests are: Why you ran for this office and what you hope to achieve.”

Relational organizers do not value all relationships equally, but they treat the development of a new relationship as an asset even if it involves an adversary. This is why the relational approach is sometimes called “broad-based” (as opposed to “issue-based”) organizing. Obama likewise observed in 2007 that “politics” usually means shouting matches on TV. But “when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” In that speech, he called for “dialogues” in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Note that the diagram that a younger Barack Obama is drawing on the chalkboard (above) is a relationship map. It shows problematic relationships among banks, utilities, and other powerful entities; but if he applied relational organizing techniques, he was about to add citizen groups to the same diagram. After all, he wrote at length as a young organizer about the “internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.” He was, in fact, a practitioner of Asset Based Community Development, which emphasizes the power and resources already present in marginalized neighborhoods.

Confrontation is not incompatible with relationship-building or a positive assessment of community assets. Any robust movement will combine these approaches and will debate the relative importance of each at every moment. I believe that confrontation is necessary and helpful at the current juncture. But I think that Obama has used something of a mix himself, as president. And when he has elected to build consensus, that too comes from his experience as a community organizer.

*Frances Moore Lappe, “Politics for a Troubled Planet” (1993), pp. 175-6

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the Civic 50: companies that are civically engaged

Points of Light has released its list of 50 companies that are most civically engaged, the Civic50. The idea is to move beyond hours of voluntary service by employees to consider: 1. other forms of investment (such as cash, or paid time by skilled employees who are assigned to public projects); 2. the integration of a company’s philanthropic efforts with its main business strategies; 3. its policies and incentives for community engagement; and 4. its impact, meaning whether and how the company assesses the effects of its civic engagement on communities.

I was one of many advisers and believe that this is a worthy effort. One question is whether the net impact of these companies is positive. A hypothetical firm might put significant investments into (say) reducing obesity in its community while also massively polluting, or removing investment from a deindustrialized city, or manufacturing harmful products. One response would be to put the positives and the negatives together into a single index. I have come to think it is better to make the “civic” activities a separate category so that we can see which companies are doing that well. We can then weigh their civic engagement along with our judgment of their effects in other domains.

A related question is how to think about policy work. The Civic50 celebrates the fact that Aetna “worked with legislators to help pass a more meaningful mental-health parity law that allows for better coordination of coverage for physical and mental health care services” and that FedEx FedEx “has also played a leadership role in advancing a social issue into which it has keen insight – pedestrian safety.” Here again, I think it’s useful to identify efforts that the firms regard as purely public-spirited so that citizens and consumers can weigh them along with (or against) other lobbying efforts that might be more controversial or downright harmful. One is also entitled to assess the ostensibly public-spirited advocacy efforts critically. Maybe FedEx’s work on pedestrian safety was helpful; maybe it wasn’t.

The main question I would like to add to the assessment of corporate civic engagement is whether a company consults with, and is held accountable by, representatives of the communities that it engages. I welcome the step from counting service hours to measuring impact, but the next step is to share the responsibility for deciding what counts as beneficial means and ends.

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subtle gender bias affects girls’ leadership

My colleagues at Tisch College, the National Education Association, and the American Association of University Women recently released a report entitled Closing the Leadership Gap: How Educators Can Help Girls Lead. Gail Bambrick summarizes it well. A key finding, as she notes, came from a small experiment:

The teachers taking the survey, 76 percent of whom were female, were asked to analyze a statement by a student running for student council president. The statement remained unchanged, except half were told it had been written by “Jacob” and the other half thought it was by “Emily.”

When asked to choose adjectives that described the attributes they saw in each candidate, many chose some of the same words to describe both Jacob and Emily: collaborative, competent, ambitious and determined.

But the differences in teachers’ assessments of Emily and Jacob were significant, according to the study. Jacob was “confident,” “aggressive,” “arrogant” and “charismatic.” Emily was “bubbly,” “hard-working,” “compassionate” and “feminine.” Among Jacob’s challenges: being “overly confident.” Among Emily’s: she “showed no authority.”

These teachers generally expressed support for gender-neutral classrooms and boosting girls’ leadership. But most students actually end up in gender-stereotyped roles in high school. “One big takeaway for us is that even enlightened, experienced teachers with progressive views about leadership can have stereotypes and biases creep up,” says [CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei] Kawashima-Ginsberg. “And this is really what affects behavior the most. It is really hard to control, but if you are aware, you can actively combat those behaviors by making sure girls are given roles as leaders and are exposed to positive role models—women leaders—within the curriculum.”

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disadvantaged youth most likely to credit the rich for their own success

My friend Connie Flanagan reports on her study of 600 US adolescents:

It was adolescents in the least privileged circumstances (whose parents had lower levels of education, whose schools were located in low-income communities, and whose classmates reported few discussions of current events at home) who were more likely to admire the wealthy for making it and contend that people were poor because they lacked motivation or hadn’t applied themselves in school. In fact, the connection between working hard in school and succeeding in life was palpable [for poor kids, whereas privileged students were more likely to cite structural inequalities.]

This is a deeply important fact about the US, one that helps explain the weakness of economic populism. We just had an election in which the Democrats won the segment of voters with postgraduate degrees and the Republicans won the people whose educations stopped at high school–the working class. Connie proposes that more advantaged kids may have more “opportunities to learn about society,” for instance, in more demanding social studies classes or through media. She also thinks that

It may be easier to attend to the structural roots of inequality from a position of advantage since one’s own group is less likely to suffer the consequences of an unequal system. In other words, the freedom to criticize the system reflects, in part, the safety net of privilege.

In contrast, for those youth who remain in schools where half of their classmates will drop out, an ardent commitment to self-reliance and a belief in the efficacy of individual effort may keep them going. The imperative of self-reliance and the lack of safety nets also seem to be messages that they hear at home: it was youth in the least privileged families who were most likely to report that their parents admonished them that they should work twice as hard as others if they wanted to get a job; that people have to create their own opportunities since nobody hands them to you; that they couldn’t blame others for their problems; and that if they didn’t succeed in life, they would have only themselves to blame.

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a method of mapping moral commitments as networks

I have been developing a method for representing moral beliefs as networks of ideas. Various friends have also been contributing to the development of this approach. So far, we have asked individuals to name their own beliefs, given them back their lists, asked them to note which pairs of beliefs seem connected, and generated network maps of their beliefs and connections. I’ve also asked individuals to share their maps with peers and to consider making changes in response to other people’s arguments. I have mapped the ideas of multiple people as one network. Instead of using surveys, one could interview people or groups about their moral thinking on a given topic and identify the beliefs and connections implied by their speech–or use a rich text, such as a poem, to discover an implicit network map. Major moral theories also have network shapes that can be diagrammed. Virtues, for instance, are important nodes in Aristotle’s conceptual network, and he says that the virtues are all connected by way of one central concept, practical wisdom.

I do not see this network approach as a model of moral thought, an empirical theory about how we actually think, or a normative theory about how we should think. Instead, I see it as a technique of analysis that is relatively neutral with respect to models and theories, yet it does have certain substantive implications.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there is little clarity or consensus about what defines a theory versus a model. But let me propose two analogies:

  1. A Lego car is a model of a real car. It can be used to develop and test theories about the performance of actual cars. These theories prove true or false when tested in real cars; the Lego model is reliable to the degree that the theories pan out. Making Lego models is a technique that is more or less helpful for engineering. Its value depends on the context and the available alternatives. For instance, Lego is almost certainly a better material than soap for making models of cars. It is a less precise medium than 3D printing, but it is also cheaper and easier. A good theory is true; a good model is valid and reliable; and a good technique is useful.
  2. In economics, I would call each equation a theory and use the word “model” to mean a whole set of equations, along with definitions and explanations of the hypothesized mathematical relationships. Working with equations is a technique. It is pretty obviously an essential technique for economics, but some have argued that it has been valued to the exclusion of other techniques, such as collecting better data, looking for natural experiments, or identifying important topics. Paul Krugman wrote recently: “It has been all too obvious that there are people with big reputations who can push equations around but don’t seem to have any sense of what the equations mean.” Like building with Legos, mathematics is a technique whose value varies with the context.

Likewise, I would propose that mapping moral networks is a technique with which one can build models and test hypotheses. It is fairly flexible and can accommodate a range of substantive views from both psychology and philosophy. But its relative value (compared to other techniques) varies depending on some assumptions about morality. I’ll compare it to two prevalent alternatives.

First, some moral philosophers construct systematic views. An example would be the sophisticated utilitarianism of Henry Sidgwick (which we could call “utilitarianism 3.0,” if Bentham’s was 1.0, was Mill’s was 2.0). Sidgwick held that there is just one ultimate moral principle: maximizing human happiness. But it generates a set of important moral rules, such as being kind and telling the truth. These precepts, in turn, imply many ordinary moral judgments, such as telling the truth to your mother.

Sidgwick’s structure was mainly philosophical, not empirical. He did not say that everyone is a utilitarian (in fact, he explicitly denied that), but that everyone’s judgments should be consistent with the results of utilitarian reasoning. There was, however, an element of empiricism is his view. He doubted that we can directly apply the utilitarian principle to real cases, which is why subsidiary rules are valuable.

Sidgwick’s structure can be diagrammed as a tree-like network, and that is somewhat illuminating. Individuals’ actual moral networks could also be mapped and compared to Sidgwick’s diagram, as a form of moral assessment. However, if Sidgwick was right, then network analysis has limited value. After all, his proposed network is quite simple, and some of the power of network modeling (e.g., detecting subtle clusters in large fields of data) would be wasted. Thus …

P1. Network techniques become more useful if we presume that real people hold many different structures of moral thought, that a theoretically driven structure like utilitarianism is not necessarily ideal, that some structures are much more complex than Sidgwick’s, and that comparing structures is illuminating.

Second, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt currently proposes six “moral foundations,” although his theory is subject to testing and improvement, and he is open to finding more than six foundations. One technique he uses is factor analysis. Many individuals are asked many questions about moral topics, and Haidt and colleagues look for unobserved variables (“factors”) that can explain a lot the variance in the answers. In developing statistical models that predict the actual results as a function of a few variables, they seek parsimony and fit. “Parsimony” means that fewer factors are better, but “fit” means that the unobserved variables should explain the actual survey answers without too much error.* Once the data yield statistical factors, Haidt and colleagues consider whether each one names a psychological instinct or emotion that 1) would have value for evolving homo sapiens, so that we would have developed an inborn tendency to embrace it, and 2) are found in many cultures around the world. Now bearing names like “care” and “liberty,” these factors become candidates for moral foundations.

Network analysis could represent Haidt’s model, just as it can represent Sidgwick’s very different conception. Each of Haidt’s foundations would be a central node connected to many concrete beliefs by one-way arrows. However, if Haidt is right, then network analysis is not as valuable a technique as the one he uses, factor analysis. First, network analysis is not nearly as parsimonious. A network map may show hundreds of beliefs clustered to varying degrees. Instead of generating six nameable foundations, a network map might yield fifty somewhat vaguely defined and partly overlapping clusters.

Second, the network method presumes that people’s explicit connections are meaningful. I diagram subjects’ networks using their assertions that their own beliefs are linked–for example, I link A to B when someone thinks that A gives her a reason to think B. But Haidt and colleagues argue that we do not know which beliefs are meaningfully connected. We reach conclusions because of unconscious biases and use reasons as mere rationalizations, gerrymandering our arguments to fit what we want to believe because of the underlying foundations. Sidgwick (like most philosophers) held that in morality, “as in other departments of thought, the primitive spontaneous processes of the mind are mixed with error, which is only to be removed gradually by comprehensive reflection upon the results of these processes.” But Haidt et al. believe that such reflection is basically ineffective, for only the primitive spontaneous processes of the mind really count. If that is the case, than the very items that matter most (the unobserved foundations) will be missing from a network map that is derived from people’s explicit connections. Thus …

P2 Network techniques become more useful if people have many clusters of moral ideas, if important information is lost by seeking parsimonious statistical models, and if reflection on explicit, conscious ideas and connections is valuable.

*Graham, Jesse et al. “Mapping the Moral Domain.” Journal of personality and social psychology 101.2 (2011): 366–385. PMC. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

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four questions about social media and politics

My post on the Monkey Cage (the Washington Post’s political science blog) is entitled “Social media hasn’t boosted young voter turnout.” The post may have turned out a little rambly, but the point is to contrast some effective recent social movements that have been driven by social media (the Dreamers and marriage equality) with the completely flat turnout rate of recent midterm elections in order to ask about the advantages–and limitations–of social media for various kinds of politics. At the end, I pose four questions:

First, can the new media engage young people who start without an interest in politics, confidence, or skills? There is little sign that large numbers of formerly apolitical young people are being recruited into politics online, even if we define “politics” broadly to include consumer and cultural activism.

Second, we can point to impressive examples of videos, slogans, and images that “go viral” and make their creators famous and influential. But for every such case, there are many that go nowhere, being seen only by the maker and perhaps a few friends. What is the impact of being unsuccessful in a competitive online arena? Is repeated failure discouraging, especially when the rare successes are so widely trumpeted?

Third, the removal of “gatekeepers” (such as newspaper editors, TV anchors, and party elders) has made information freer. Anyone can create and share a video without permission. But the task of sorting reliable from blatantly false information has become harder. How will young people — and older people, too — learn to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Finally, can online social movements be sustained in the face of adversity? The ALS Challenge (in which people dump water on their heads to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), has raised $115 million. There have been 10 billion views of the Challenge videos. That was an impressive burst of activity that probably far exceeded the goals of the organizers. But the Challenge faces no organized opposition and need not continue to achieve its purposes.

In contrast, the Arab Spring, also powered by social media, faltered when it encountered disciplined resistance. The events of Ferguson, Mo. in the summer have prompted much online organizing (some from the right as well as the left), but that attention may also fade. To make a difference on a complex and contentious issue requires lasting effort. Whether the new participatory politics can sustain political engagement remains an open question.

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civic engagement and jobs

The National Journal’s Fawn Johnson has an article today entitled “Civic Engagement Can Help Millennials Get Jobs: Community volunteering teaches the same soft skills that employers need.” Some of the underlying evidence is ours. For instance, we have found that rates of civic engagement predict rates of employment at the community level.  That may be because individuals get jobs through civic engagement or because engaged citizens address problems in their communities (such as underperforming schools or crime) that stand in the way of jobs. At the individual level, students who are civically engaged (even as a requirement) perform better in school, perhaps because civic engagement imparts skills and motivates them to study.

Johnson quotes two of my friends and colleagues, Generation Citizen’s Scott Warren and the American Democracy Project’s George Mehaffy, both of whom see their important projects as related to employment.

I believe we can tighten the connection between civic engagement and work if we take two steps:

  1. We should find ways of demonstrating that individuals have obtained job-relevant skills through their civic engagement. Imagine a student who has middling grades and no plans for college. But he is an excellent organizer who regularly persuades peers to resolve violent disputes and can get people to turn out for community events. Employers might like to hire this person, but they have no way of knowing his skills. We should award meaningful and rigorous badges or certificates for civic skills, to increase their market value.
  2. We should think of civic engagement more as work and less as service–the shift that Harry Boyte has been advocating for some time. Often, civic engagement is defined in strict contrast to paid work, so that if you receive a paycheck, you are not being “civic.” The classic civic acts are then voluntary service and voting, neither of which is paid. One consequence is that we don’t take these acts fully seriously. In particular, we thank people for volunteering whether they have done any good or not. But you can strengthen your community while on the job, and you can act as if you have a job even if you are unpaid–for instance, if you are accountable for results. If we treated unpaid service opportunities as forms of work, we would take them more seriously and also make them even better pathways to employment. (And, by the way, if we can find the cash to pay volunteers, so much the better.)
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