Celebrating International Volunteer Day 2019 – 5 December

Dr Johanna Garnett, Lecturer in UNE Peace Studies, believes the most powerful change can happen at the community level. She has been an active volunteer in Australia and overseas for 43 years.

At 17 years old, Johanna heard about the violence experienced by people in Argentina under a US-backed dictatorship, and immediately joined Amnesty International, volunteering in local groups to raise awareness about social injustice and direct violence particularly as a result of state-led policies. Her volunteering activities soon spilled over into other areas.

“I joined Greenpeace and worked in local community groups in London for five years, fundraising and raising awareness about nuclear weapons, animal testing, the miners, and local environmental issues. Back in Australia in the 1980s I volunteered in arts and community groups, at the local school, as a voluntary trainer in adult education and for my local Greens Group. Volunteering was a key aspect of my life for 30 years,” she says.

For the past six years, Johanna has been working with communities in Myanmar, South-East Asia. They are combatting unregulated industrialised forms of development, particularly in agribusiness, that is resulting in land-grabbing and unequal distribution of wealth, benefits and resources, as well as environmental and social degradation. She has been working with young farmers to develop educational and environmental programs that promote equality, sustainability and peace.

All this, because she believes in the power of grassroots activity to change the world.

“I believe in community, and that, ultimately, this is where the necessary change for a more peaceful future is going to come from: from the people who have lived experience of conflict, of degradation, of poverty and abuse. They also have the knowledge and understanding of what is best for them.

“Communities do not work without volunteers. Through volunteering efforts in Australia, I have seen improvements to health and education services, and strengthening of local communities. Overseas, I’ve witnessed young people gaining confidence, skills and knowledge and I’ve seen their appreciation for those that volunteer their time, particularly to teach English.

“Civil society and grassroots organisations are integral to many societies. Young people in Myanmar grow up with civic duties and responsibilities and volunteering – working as part of the community unpaid – is simply a part of life.”

While volunteering requires a sacrifice of time and resources, Johanna says there also satisfaction in achieving what you set out to do and making a difference.

For Johanna, these achievements include seeing her first cohort of 25 students graduate from a 10-month training program in Myanmar in 2014, and graduates go on to implement their own community initiatives, including the beginnings of a nine-acre demonstration farm and training centre, and recently, discussing future plans with local conservation groups and farmers in Myanmar.

“Volunteering is satisfying because I feel that we are doing the right thing: for the people and for the environment, and ultimately, for peace.”

Image: Johanna and local farmers inspecting the site of their demonstration farm and training centre in Rakhine State, Myanmar, November 2019