Interviews and story by Priya Menon
Edited by Ioanna Theodorou
You are in a busy kitchen with people coming in and out, some chopping vegetables, others carrying plates. Words are thrown around in Arabic, English, Spanish, Farsi. Everything smells delicious.
This is not an international restaurant. It’s the kitchen of a grassroots community centre feeding refugees in Athens.
Some of these people are volunteers, others are refugees that came to Greece on a lifeboat. You can’t tell who is who, and that’s exactly the point.
When we think of codes of conduct as they exist in the workplace and other professional sectors, they delineate the clear red lines not to cross. Codes of conducts are still one of the most visible, and important marks of accountability within grassroots aid work is an organization. However, this new approach to aid that doesn’t separate as formally “beneficiaries” and “aid providers” also calls for a different approach to codes of conduct.
One of the great strengths of grassroots aid is the immediacy that allows for organizations to be more flexible and informal. After all, the movement’s fundamental belief is to collapse the barriers we internally construct to keep those different or foreign to us at an arm’s length.
Moreover, this belief has even farther repercussions:
- Understanding, empathy and personal relationships with the people we support lie at the very heart of the grassroots aid movement.
- Equality is therefore another central principle for the grassroots aid movement. That plays out in the attempt to put volunteers and participants on equal footing.
However, how do you balance the noble ideal of equality with the reality of people relying on you for support?
Historically, Codes of Conducts were put in place to formalise how a “service provider” interfaces with a “beneficiary”.
When you are operating in the grassroots-way, the usual rule books go out the window.
There is no “one size fits all” solution.
Below are some insights from different grassroots teams on how they navigate creating an environment of equality while still respecting the differences between people from different cultures, having lived through different experiences and relying on the grassroots for support in many ways.
Writing the “rules”: An ongoing process
Emily Wilson, volunteer coordinator for Project Elea, describes the construction of Project Elea’s code of conduct is a continuously on-going process. “The crisis is so new, so many of our rules are developing with the crisis… It’s developed on our experience.” Jonny Willis of Velos Youth Center, echoes Wilson’s experience, remarking, “In the grassroots world, things happen a lot faster and we’re a lot quicker and there’s a much more responsive nature to the work.”
Both, however, underline the usefulness of their respective codes of conduct.
Because of the fast-paced nature of grassroots aid work, “you have to have a code of conduct and you have to make sure everyone is on the same page and agrees with it.”
Shared values & informal structure
In contrast, Melissa Network lacks a formal code of conduct for volunteers. Jasmine Kirk, who coordinates volunteers for the organization, attributed this partially to the nature of volunteering at the organization. Many of its volunteers are long-term and much of its work is support related, rather than direct service.
Nonetheless, there do exist informal structures that hold volunteers accountable. Kirk identified the accountability mechanism for Melissa Network as a “lead by example” model. “All the leaders of the organization — there’s like 5–8 regulars — at least two of them are in everyday. So, we have that presence there…. It’s very much led by example.”
Additionally, Melissa Network is run by and for migrant women, which Kirk also credits as helping to create an atmosphere of comfort and responsibility — “the participants are very honest with giving feedback.”
Blurring the lines between “volunteers” & “beneficiaries”
Similarly, STEPS has no code of conduct. The entire structure of the organization eschews traditional models of non-profits direct service, instead opting for a model that treats both volunteers and those served as participants in its program. It asks each participant to abide by a simple — though demanding — set of values, delineated in the organization’s motto. Tassos Smetopoulous, creator and executive director of STEPS, believes that all conduct by participants follows from this motto:
“We act with responsibility, we are based on acceptance, we communicate with respect, believing in relationships built on trust. There are no do’s and don’ts. You just have to remember this. Then, nobody has to say anything to you. You control yourself with this.”