Red Lines & Shades of Gray: Code of Conducts by the grassroots community
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.”
But, why do we even need a Code of Conduct?
Despite their unique approaches to organizational codes of conduct, each of these organizations make sure all involved are held accountable for their actions.
Without such a mechanism, the very power dynamics grassroots aid seeks to ameliorate — such as that between volunteers and service recipients — are reenacted and reinforced.
We can only confront inequality if we are willing to recognize and respond to it at every level, including — and especially — in personal relationships.
Modes of accountability — such as an organization’s code of conduct — can serve precisely as this means of recognition. Integrating this kind of professionalism into grassroots aid organizations allows to bridge two opposite poles: it enables volunteers and participants to create a space of equality within a desperately unequal world, while acknowledging the relative privileges of some individuals involved.
Instead of red lines, black and white, let’s think more about shades of colour (gray sounds negative for something that is actually a positive effort to find balance).
There are certain differences and power dynamics that we have to take into account, not to create walls, but to make sure that our openness is conscious and fair.
“We” are here to support: Regardless of whether the team member is man, woman, Greek, international volunteer or refugee, when “we” dispense aid (information, food, education, medical etc.) to someone, they are putting their trust in us. That is the most important bond that we have to respect.
Fairness: There is a responsibility on the side of volunteers to treat all with respect, regardless of personal relationships.
Acknowledging privilege: Equality is theoretical unless we acknowledge the background conditions of inequality within which these relationships of equality are situated.
Simply put, whether we have a choice to go home, or the financial ability to volunteer or the knowledge to teach or assist, we have privilege. Even though we don’t want it to be the case, these things influence our work.
Advocating for accountability is not the same as advocating for the loss of the genuine warmth that gives the grassroots aid community its immense power it has.As the work of the four organizations highlighted demonstrates, responsibility and restraint need not be the opposite of kindness and compassion. They can exist harmoniously alongside each other.
In fact, structures that increase fairness, trust and conscious, nuanced decision-making foster more equal and respectful environments. Only in these environments can the ideal of dignity within the grassroots aid community blossom.