Bridging inequalities in volunteering: why social equity in Seychelles matters

Setting foot on the Aldabra atoll has long been considered the dream for all Seychellois and conservationists. When visiting relatives on holiday in my home country of the Seychelles as a child, I would hear more about its astounding natural beauty and mystique – often from people who only dared dream to make it there – and wondered whether such a place truly exists.

It turns out that Aldabra actually does exist. A location that once seemed a lifetime away, is now only days away for me. I recognise the amazing opportunity I have been afforded, and am grateful for the life experiences that have come my way to successfully apply for this experience.

How do we ensure, however, that people without such privileges can access opportunities like these in the future? For me, when I consider this question, in order to answer it, we need to start talking about social equity.

Growing up in the Greater London suburb of Hounslow, the privilege that life afforded me was my parents. They worked tirelessly to build the best possible life that they could for their son. I grew up in a household that valued stability, a strong work ethic, manners and the importance of education.

I went to a decent-performing state school in my local area, where I was not only pushed to reach my potential by teachers, but where I learnt the importance of social mixing and building rapport. My parents recognised that investing time in my education would be the key to unlocking the opportunities that may otherwise have been out of my reach. This already is a privilege that so many others do not necessarily have.

A good education in itself, however, is sometimes not enough. Education may be the key to unlocking the door, but who controls whether that door is opened for you or not? What level of agency would a young, state-school educated male and his working parents (from an inner-city and ethnic-minority background in the UK) have when knowing how to open that door? This is where I learned the importance of cultural capital, and my family’s distinct lack of it when I went to university.

Cultural capital is shaped by the culture of your school, your friends, your family and your wider networks. It is the ‘hidden curriculum’ of knowledge, behaviours and skills that are transmitted through a (typically) middle-to-upper-class culture of any society. It is the ability to open doors through the power and clout of your personal and professional networks.

You either have exposure to this during your formative years, or you do not. It can be acquired and learned, but without a foot in the door to that world, acquiring that knowledge can be deliberately challenging.

What did this mean for me in practical terms at university?

Completing internships over the summer holidays to increase your chances of getting that dream graduate job. Taking on an office-bearer role for a university society to demonstrate ‘leadership potential’ to prospective employers. Networking with purpose, so that you are good friends with future movers and shakers once you enter the world of work.

By the time I realised that these were the things I was supposed to do at university, my four years of studies had almost passed me by. At least I was lucky enough to gain some exposure to the importance of cultural capital at university, but what about those in society who do not? What if you never even made it to university? If you are not exposed to these unwritten rules for social progress throughout your schooling, family or networks, how are you supposed to learn about them?

I was 24 years old when I fully embraced the importance of acquiring cultural capital. I applied for a voluntary Leadership Programme run by a UK-based youth leadership development charity called UpRising, whose social mission was to make leadership across all sectors in the UK more diverse and representative by improving pathways to power for young leaders from marginalised backgrounds. The belief was that, by equipping young adults with the knowledge, skills, confidence and networks, they would better understand how power structures worked in the UK, and would be better positioned to navigate and influence them.

It was on this programme in the UK that I developed cultural capital. I practiced the art of networking. I learnt how to leave a lasting and positive impression with key contacts. I got better at identifying who to speak to, in order to facilitate new and exciting life opportunities.

I began to understand the value of volunteering; not just for the people I was serving, but also for developing the skills, confidence and knowledge required to open new personal and professional networks.

I learnt how to successfully apply for life-changing programmes and experiences. These are skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and I feel grateful and privileged that I now possess these.

When I think of the volunteering landscape in the Seychelles, however – and the transformative experiences that can emerge from civil society experiences – are we providing enough opportunities for diverse groups of people to learn about and apply cultural capital? For those who lack the knowledge, skills, confidence and networks to successfully apply for volunteering initiatives and opportunities, what are we doing to address this? Where are our next batch of eager, diverse and committed future Aldabra Clean-Up Project participants coming from? In a country where perceptions can be rife and potentially damaging, we are not doing enough to tackle the issue of social equity.

When it comes to accessing voluntary opportunities here, I think that the issue of cultural capital now supersedes the issues of nepotism and sycophancy. If you understand what is required to successfully demonstrate competencies that allow you to access an amazing opportunity – and the process is so designed in a way that favours that level of cultural capital – then what needs rectifying is the process itself – and access to the process – and not the person who has acquired cultural capital in the first place. What concerns me is that we are not even having this conversation as a country.

Instead of negatively labelling those who have acquired cultural capital, I am far more interested in what we do to equip those who lack the cultural capital with the tools to equally benefit.

I am also interested in what we do to make opportunities as accessible as possible for as many diverse groups of people as possible. In order to achieve this, understanding the link between social class, barriers to entry and social mobility in Seychelles are key.

If you are directly affected by the social ills currently gripping the country, why would applying for a voluntary opportunity ever be on your radar (and, more tellingly, which socio-economic backgrounds would most likely be more affected by issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, material deprivation and family breakdown)?

If your perception is that the elites only apply for voluntary opportunities – and you perceive yourself to come from a lower social class – would you have the confidence and self-belief to apply? If you have not acquired the cultural capital to understand the art of writing a strong application, how would you know what to include in it? If you perceive transparency and enforcement of processes to be an issue, could that deter you from even considering to apply in the first place?

These are some of the challenges around social equity and accessing opportunities that we must start to address. How do we begin to do this?

  1. If processes are not transparent and strictly enforced, then we need to examine them.
  2. Make opportunities accessible and visible. If an application process requires an online video submission – but the marketing of the opportunity is restricted to certain circles and an applicant lacks the means to access a video recording device – these are immediate barriers to entry that will restrict your pool of applicants.
  3. Monitor where certain demographic deficits lie, and actively put affirmative measures in place to encourage more applications from underrepresented backgrounds.
  4. On a systemic level, introduce programmes that empower disadvantaged groups to alleviate social/economic/cultural/barriers to thrive and become active citizens.

As a starting point, however, we need to acknowledge and understand the problem of the lack of social equity in the first place. Once we understand the extent of the issue, we can begin to understand the barriers to entry that certain groups face when accessing voluntary experiences, and adequately begin to address them.

Initiatives like the Aldabra Clean-Up Project are a fantastic opportunity to level the playing field. The jackpot of setting foot on the atoll is made accessible by inviting all Seychellois to participate in a transparent and well-publicised process.

However, if we do not begin to value social equity as a society, then the pool of applicants for such experiences will always lack diversity and representation. By raising the topic and having the discussion, perhaps we can begin to think about how we can upskill future generations from all socio-economic backgrounds to participate in the Aldabra lottery. If you have to be in it to win it, then let’s make the playing field attractive and examine the barriers to entry for those who would dare to dream. It is only by doing this that we guarantee that the opportunity to win the jackpot can be truly accessed by all.

– Craig Francourt

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