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Beyond the Formal Work

I haven’t written a posting for a while because I spent most of January writing my next pre-dissertation special topic paper. Also, I’m taking a course in the use of storytelling to support research. We have a number of interesting assignments, so to keep the good times rolling on here I am going to publish the stories I come across, as long as I have my interviewees’ permission. The first one today is from an assignment where we were asked to collect three stories from family or a group of friends. I chose to get together with a small group of close friends who started off as volunteers with me in my former job.

Prior to starting my Ph.D., I spent several years employed with a community-based HIV/AIDS organization. I stayed with the organization for almost eight years because much of my work involved organizing volunteers from the community, who annually donated several thousand hours of their time to support the organization’s efforts. For five years, I was responsible for recruiting, training, and supervising volunteers for our largest fundraiser, a 10k walk in Minneapolis that required the help of up to 500 people on the day of the event. Because of the high stress and long hours of planning involved, I grew close to a small number of “Captains,” the volunteer leaders who guided our production timeline in the months leading up to each annual AIDS Walk. Upon leaving the organization, I found that my friendships with these individuals grew quite close, and we often see each other for holidays, parties, and other meaningful occasions. Because we all share a common experience from different vantage points, and because we continue to stay close with each other, I wanted to use this opportunity to learn more about how we remembered our work together, along with what made us specifically feel the desire to continuing onward as friends. How did we come to prioritize friendship with each other, compared to others who may have been similarly involved in running the AIDS Walk?

To explore this topic more fully, three people– Sara, Elizabeth, and Coco—joined my partner Jaxon and myself at the Longfellow Grill, where we talked over food and drinks.

How did you come to be involved with the AIDS Walk?

Elizabeth. The AIDS Walk volunteer experience for Elizabeth began quite suddenly when she received a phone call one year from her friend Nathan (unable to attend), saying, “I need your help tomorrow!” The next day she arrived at 5:30 in the morning, where she was thrown into the mix because Nathan trusted her to get work done in a fast-paced, somewhat chaotic environment. The next year, Elizabeth was made a Captain, although does not recall being asked. Most likely, we thought, Nathan volunteered her for the role, and because the particular area she would oversee involved a great deal of precise planning, staging, and execution, she felt a strong connection to the task. Although she felt like there was little to do in her first year, Elizabeth considered the experience to be friendly; becoming the lead organizer for event signage also appealed because, as she said, “I am a control freak and I like to own things.” Describing her approach as “ideation,” she notes, “I can’t solve a problem until I know everything that came before it. Stop talking about it—let’s go.”

Coco. Although currently retired, Coco became involved with the AIDS Walk through her former company, a large corporate sponsor that hosted a rest area along the 10k course. The rest area activities did not appeal to her however, and she realized that other opportunities—specifically heavy lifting and hauling—fit her interests more closely. She quickly became a standout “muscle crew” member despite her small, wiry frame. Coco felt that the experience of moving around, working with teams, and building the event from the ground up (before tearing it all down) was more appealing than “standing around, handing out bananas.” She described doing some of the most thankless work of the event—hauling tables, putting up signs and banners, hauling garbage, raising tents—but found the crews to be so friendly that she wanted to come back.  After five years of volunteering, she continues in her role as well as helping in the organization’s office on weekdays.

Sara. Although the youngest of the group, Sara was involved the longest, going back 14 years to when she was a young teenager. Beginning first as a walker and then volunteering, she became a Captain at age 18, a role she kept until age 28. She identified a prior volunteer coordinator as her major influence for getting so involved, saying, “She was just awesome, and we got along so well. It was a very personal connection. I was 14 years old telling my mom, ‘Drive me to the city so I can make safer sex kits!’” Having a number of gay friends and attending her school’s gay-straight alliance in the late 1990s, she felt that HIV/AIDS was a meaningful cause to her and her close associates, which combined with the personal contact she felt with staff, kept her committed throughout her young adulthood. Through this work, Sara felt that she built relationships with people outside the “normal” circles of her suburban upbringing, who came together regularly to volunteer and have fun. Responding to Sara’s recollections, Elizabeth found it amazing in their 12 years of age difference, so much had changed with respect to LGBT visibility and support. She was especially struck by the notion that a 14 year old could find community in an urban social environment that used to be considered taboo in many circles.  For Sara however, it was noteworthy that 15 years ago, HIV/AIDS fundraisers like this one had a much closer identification with LGBT communities, which she and the others felt was not as true in recent years.

What kept you involved?

Both Sara and Elizabeth have transitioned out of their volunteer roles, while Coco continues to stay involved. Although each friend described different reasons for staying involved with the Walk during our years together, there were slight variations in their responses as well. Elizabeth described her strong orientation to the task she was given and her need to fully visualize and solve the problems it presented. Sara and Coco, meanwhile both started by recalling their relationships to the people around them, and feeling a sense of community. Aside from just the general atmosphere of friendliness however, I noted that specific friendships seemed to occur that transcended the shared work and continued outside of the volunteer setting. At this point, Jaxon shared that although he came to the Walk and helped out as my partner, his stance over time shifted from reluctant (but obligatory) involvement to looking forward to seeing people that he knew I trusted with major responsibilities. His sentiment caused me to remember how during one of my first Walk seasons, Sara asked me how she could surprise Jaxon with a nice “thank you” for coming to help in the early morning. I suggested a mocha drink from Caribou Coffee, which she presented to him so suddenly that his face “melted” with gratitude, and they have been close friends ever since.

Elizabeth observed, “Let’s be honest—the day of the event is never fun. But it’s the people that make the difference.” She looked forward to doing the prep work every year, seeing everyone, and coming to the large planning meetings where people could form and/or rekindle connections to each other. She noted that during one year when smaller, more task-centered “satellite” meetings were attempted, the work was simply “less fun.” In response I shared my own observation from early in my involvement, when I found that many of these volunteer Captains got together in their own time over food or long walks, simply to hang out and share ideas for future Walks. I was frustrated at the time because it seemed that a great deal of energy around this event occurred when staff was not involved, in part because staff only met with the volunteers during official meetings. I described my response as, “Take me for a walk. Invite me out for coffee or happy hour. Let me be a part of the process when you come up with these inspired ideas, so we can actually connect your thoughts to the technical operations of the event. I don’t want the separation.” Building on this thought, Sara shared that at times, this perceived distance between staff and the volunteers led her to consider leaving. “I still remember telling them to consider different incentive prizes for the walkers, like iPods. Every other event out there was giving away nicer prizes for their top fundraisers, but we were giving away hats or a fleece. Three years later, they finally adopted it.”

Coco’s current volunteer role includes overseeing Walk signage, which means the responsibility has passed from Nathan, to Elizabeth, to her (“keeping it in the family”). She sees a lot of changes coming to the event, which may be positive or may create confusion. While we all agreed that change is necessary for large operations such as this event, she did share concern that newer staff may not understand the necessity of certain assignments or ways of carrying out the work. 

Beyond the volunteer work, what makes us stick together?

At this point, I raised my key question. We spent time with a number of people who worked hard on the AIDS Walk, who brought ideas, passion, and kindness to the experience. But, what led us to specifically stay in close contact with each other? Jaxon related it to another friendship he has nurtured with someone who studied overseas with him, using the term “translation” to characterize how a relationship that is meaningful in one setting continues to be meaningful beyond that specific context. Everyone emphasized the strength of emotional connections, the ability to trust each other, and the feeling of looking forward to seeing certain people that endures despite changes in everyone’s involvement.

Elizabeth raised other noteworthy quirks that we as friends seem to share “in a cool, serendipitous way,” such as an affinity for the British television show Doctor Who and an appreciation for Scotch whiskey. She and I both recalled an experience where she had been very dissatisfied not with me, but with a pre-AIDS Walk process that was changed without her consideration. Where she had felt bad about delivering negative feedback to me, I had felt grateful for her forthrightness and willingness to share exactly what she felt. I said, “You told me what you needed, and that is so refreshing.” For me, I remember that exchange as a striking encounter where two people found a way to navigate a complicated technical issue while affirming each other’s personhood throughout the encounter. What became apparent, then, was that the significance of our work together included the fact that we did more than just simply work. We took the time and space to engage with other aspects of each other’s life experiences and personalities, finding that beyond the regard we shared for the task at hand, each of us were connected in other meaningful ways.

Every person in our group shares a common set of experiences with the AIDS Walk, yet we all came to the event from different perspectives and responsibilities. Looking back  on my own role as staff during those years, I reflected that common knowledge may view the formal role of volunteer management as facilitating a positive environment in which volunteers feel a meaningful connection to their work. Beyond these characteristics, I found that the informal experience of building relationships, making space for interpersonal dynamics, and building trust can transcend the technical aspects of our shared work, thus enabling each of us to recreate meaningful and reciprocal friendships beyond the endpoint of our formal relationships.

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About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

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