Almost any choice has a cost associated with it. If you do X, you cannot do Y. Our program initially carried an up front cost of $3000 which we expected volunteers would provide out of their own resources or fundraise for. We quickly recognized that this presented a barrier to many who did not have the funds and did not have experience fundraising. We didn’t want this to be a reason not to apply so we reallocated those funds to the in-program fundraising goal. Participants would still raise the funds, but during the program year when we could work on it as a team. We could not run the program without those funds but we also did not need them up front.
We thought we had it under control but we may have underestimated the other, non-financial costs associated with our program. While we removed the fee for participation there was still significant perceived cost in lost job prospects and leaving behind supportive networks for a year. Regardless of the actual likelihood of finding a well-paying job the perception of that loss drove prospects to make another choice.
Staying in shared housing may have been perceived as a cost as well. This might have been a matter of how we presented it but most likely prospects are either coming from a school housing situation that they have chosen or a predictable (even if not ideal) housing situation with family. Sharing housing with strangers, though fundamental to the intentional community, might not be perceived as a benefit by all.
This was a surprise to us and was especially disappointing to realize given our emphasis on breaking down racism. We found that the structure of our program made it much easier for people of privilege to participate than it did for people of color.
We made some assumptions that asked participants to come with a level of privilege. For example, we did not provide health care for volunteers. This assumes they will have access to their parents’ plan or have the resources to supply their own coverage or (unrealistically) that they just won’t get sick during the year. We did not fully provide for local transportation. Public transportation in Detroit is… not the best. Volunteers need to get to their placements on time, we did not offer to cover the cost of fuel beyond the monthly stipend. We assumed that they will come with a well-maintained car and the ability to pay for fuel and insurance or that they would trust us to help them figure these things out during the year.
Not providing for relocation expense assumes they can afford to travel across the country to do the program. Requiring volunteers live on site assumes that they don’t have other family obligations which would require them to share duties at home. The $250 per month stipend quickly erodes when you consider paying for transportation, occasional health needs, food and (of course) a cell phone.
For some prospects these are aspects of the program that define who is eligible for it. Those with some privilege who are able to provide these things for themselves by their own means (or their parents’ means) might have been more comfortable applying. For those without those means, we asked them to trust us that they would take care of them while we only committed to provide $250 per month for their expenses. This made the decision to apply much easier for someone with privilege than without. This kind of privilege and access to resources is strongly correlated with being white.
We were convicted that we had designed a program to focus on anti-racism that favored white people over people of color. As we go forward we continue to be committed to breaking down racism as a part of our program and are recommitted to anti-racism in how we structure and conduct our ministry.