Recruiting a more inclusive and diverse volunteer corps, part 1

    Published on January 24th, 2020

    At Peer Health Exchange, we’re aiming to be a place where the ninth grade students we serve can see themselves in the college health educators that come to their classrooms.

    With that goal in mind, we’re working hard to build, develop and support a volunteer corps that is reflective of all our communities by recruiting, retaining and creating inclusive spaces for Black and Latinx health educators. 

    Among our many diversity, equity and inclusive (DEI) strategies, earlier this school year we overhauled our volunteer application, refining our data collection in the process. Here’s what we’re learning: 

    1. Refreshing our application widened our view

    “This is the most we’ve ever revised the application from demographics to application questions,” reported Xaelah Jarrett, Peer Health Exchange’s Senior Manager for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

    Major changes to the form included an option to multi-select for an applicant’s race. Ethnicity questions were also changed to an open fill box, to allow volunteers to share “stories about who they are,” reports Xaelah. The team also reports adding questions about pronouns, LGBTQ+ identity and disability, including questions about accommodations needed. This information is helpful in making sure that we can budget and plan ahead, without placing the onus on a volunteer with disabilities to seek their own accommodations. 

    2. Our demographic data doesn’t need to match Census data

    Miriam Pérez, Chicago Senior Program Manager reports these changes came as part of an effort to define diversity and assessing how that is represented and captured within the volunteer process. Demographic data collection usually follows a census-based model, as it has with previous iterations of the volunteer application. Census-based models are often rigid and binary, without allowing for a spectrum of identities. Being able to represent this spectrum allows our teams to make sure they’re accurately portraying the communities and volunteers they serve, such as the significant Afro-Latinx culture represented within the New York site.

    Twenty five percent of all students in the nation are expected to be Latinx within the next few years, yet 77 to 80 percent of teachers are white and women. Depending on the site, 70 to 97 percent of of the high school populations served by Peer Health Exchange identify as Black or Latinx. “We need to be aligned with the communities that we’re serving,” states Xaelah.

    3. Beyond numbers—data collection is about serving young people better 

    This year’s changes came after a long internal dialogue about recruitment efforts, and with a lot of feedback and discussion directly from volunteers. Peer Health Exchange has organized several focus groups with current Black and Latinx volunteers over the last three years, focus groups with a stated goal of improving the application process and finding the most appropriate and approachable way for new volunteers to provide necessary demographic information. In discussing the reasons for the changes, the team also cites a presentation given by the Peer Health Exchange volunteers at Berkley, which advocated for increased data collection and representation of LGBTQ and BIPOC.

    While data collection about sensitive topics such as race and ethnicity can be uncomfortable for some folx, collecting this data allows the program to make sure the volunteers they recruit are not only diverse, they also accurately reflect the makeup of the students they’re serving. “It’s about mirrors and windows,” says Xaelah, referring to a concept introduced by Emily Style. Mirrors are stories that reflect who we are, and windows are opportunities to see into the life of another person. When students are able to see themselves in the volunteers teaching them, and see leaders with experiences which are diverse from their own, students are shown to have stronger learning outcomes and a better connection to the material covered.

    Xaelah states, “Data is important, but also, people feeling seen and validated is just as critical to the work.” 

    Click here for a powerful example from one of our applicants and now Chicago volunteer Jorge Mendez. 

    As we continue to work together to improve who we are as an organization, it’s important to us that we pause to reflect, share our progress, and lessons learned with our communities in hopes that we can continue to grow together. Drop us a line if you’re doing this work within your own organization or have questions or suggestions for stronger recruitment practices.

    “When students are able to see themselves in the volunteers teaching them and see leaders with experiences which are diverse from their own, students are shown to have stronger learning outcomes and a better connection to the material covered.” Photo: Amy Sherald via

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