Thirty years ago the UN General Assembly designated December 5th as International Volunteer Day to recognize the work done by volunteers to address global human development challenges. I'm glad that volunteerism gets its day! There are no limits to who can volunteer and the good that volunteers can accomplish. Every good deed, no matter how small, is significant, and micro-level deeds of service add up to a macro-level difference.
And there are macro-level challenges that we must address. In September, the UN announced 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets for 2030 that volunteers will contribute towards achieving. With rhetorical flair, they focused on these targets: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. While there is no way to separate ourselves from the inevitable impact of these development challenges as they are experienced around the world, it is hard not to look at the news and think about what we can do at home. With the UN's five "Ps" in mind, the following are five ways to volunteer and make a difference on one of the headlines that plagues us today:
The U.S. high school graduation rate reached 81 percent in 2012-13, but questions abound whether high school graduates are prepared for college. Limited access to financial resources is a leading reason why lower income college students drop out at a higher rate, yet there is a cultural gap, too. First generation students are often less prepared for the level of rigor of their classes and find an absence of support on campus compared to their home environments. There are opportunities to volunteer as mentors for college students with national organizations like studentmentor.org or to form lasting connections -- mentoring or tutoring -- at a high school in your own community.
Among other devastation, climate change is leading to higher temperatures; rising seas; increased risks of fires, floods and harsher storms; and associated economic losses. If you aren't already recycling, volunteer to start a recycling program in your office or school. A simpler way to volunteer and to have a long-term impact is to plant trees. "Forty-six to 58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year -- equivalent to 36 football fields every minute," according to the World Wildlife Fund. While USDA explains that the "net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day." You can plant trees outside of your house or in your neighborhood, or connect with a group through an organization like the Arbor Day Foundation.
The 2030 Goals "ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives ..." That means refugees, too. Sadly, the political pandering on the case of Syrian refugees is consistent with one part of America's historic record . It is up to us to fulfill the other, more positive part of that record. At some point in each of our own family's history, we were these refugees or immigrants. Approximately 9 million Syrian refugees have fled their homes since 2011 and roughly 60 million people are forcibly displaced in the world today (including internally displaced people). Seventy thousand refugees -- from all countries -- were admitted to the United States in 2014, and these nine volunteer agencies support the US Office of Refugee Resettlement in teaching refugees English, job skills, and American culture.
406,496 people died by firearms in the United States from 2001 to 2013. The Bill of Rights is sacrosanct, and our civil society is strong because we respect each other's cultural norms. Still, it is hard to explain why our laws accommodate the rights of people like that San Bernardino couple to amass more than 6000 rounds of ammunition or why our legislators enable people on the F.B.I.'s consolidated terrorist watch list to buy guns. When it comes to stopping gun violence, there are many opportunities to be an advocate, from the Brady Campaign to Organizing for America . Stop Hand Gun Violence is an organization that "works to prevent firearm violence through public awareness, education, policy advocacy and law enforcement strategies -- without banning guns." They have an open call for volunteers.
The response of many Americans to ISIS and the Paris attacks has been to cast suspicion on Muslim-Americans. Stereotypes prevail and we see Muslim-Americans cast as tropes, rather than our neighbors, teachers, doctors, and professional athletes. Considering a national registry for Muslim-Americans or mothballing the refugee and asylum system that is part of our country's character are counter-productive. When we engage in that kind of stereotyping and self-defeating public policy, we are more likely to contribute to extremist behavior than deter future attacks. There are between 5-7 million Muslims in America, representing a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances. Approximately 250 American-Muslims have joined ISIS and 68 have been indicted for supporting it -- a microscopic fraction of 1 percent of the Muslim-American population. Those numbers don't add up to the discrimination and fear-mongering that we are witnessing today. There are plenty of interfaith opportunities to volunteer. America's Unofficial Ambassadors (full disclosure: the initiative I started) offers the chance to volunteer with a school or NGO in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East so to create people-to-people partnerships and then to share those experiences in your own community to build mutual understanding.