This piece by Dan Johnson was the winner of VIA’s inaugural essay contest.
The 5-year-old Rescue
“He’s hanging on to the tree branch,” a voice crackled across the line. “A kid…he looks 5 years old…is hanging on to a tree branch.”
“What street?” another voice responded. “X and X.” “Okay, we need our closest boat to respond.”
The line went silent. Too long. Then a third voice cracked over the radio “We got him! He’s in the boat.”
Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. A few claps and cheers from listeners. Then, it was back to work. The rescue was impressive, but there were thousands more that needed help, and many more weeks of work ahead.
Broader Disaster Picture
It was August of 2017 and Hurricane Harvey had blasted the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, dumping 33 trillion gallons of water on the southeast United States. Houston was at the epicenter of Harvey’s fury with most areas receiving over 30 inches of rain, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and bursting lakes, streams, and levees designed to protect residents from lesser storms.
While federal and state agencies—including the U.S. Coast Guard—mobilized quickly and were on the ground within hours of landfall, there was one group that received more praise for being at the heart of the disaster (and rescued more people) than anyone else: the Cajun Navy.
On that day in August, I was listening in to the “Navy” Houston relief channel. A friend had noticed my interest in how the Cajun Navy had rescued Louisiana residents during the 2014 floods, and had offered to let me listen in as they worked their operations during Harvey.
The Cajun Navy had begun as a rag tag group of citizens with shallow water boats who, after the miserable federal response to Hurricane Katrina, decided to work together to protect their neighbors from any future Louisiana flooding. On the day after Harvey struck, they felt a strong urge to help their more southern neighbors, and posted a video of a convoy of boats and trucks headed to perform water rescues in Houston.
The rescue of the 5-year-old—and the realization of how much impact this cooperation between citizens could have—was too much for me to take sitting on the sidelines. I asked a coordinator to put me to work, and that they did. I spent every free hour calling people who would post their location on social media asking for help. I would ask about their emergency situation, how many needed help, and how high the water was. Point, click, call. Receiving twitter confirmation that someone you alerted rescuers to was rescued is a high I don’t know that I’ll ever get over.
There were hundreds of people involved in the operation. From rescuers, to social media, to logistics and dispatch, people across the entire country were powering the Navy’s operations. These were hundreds of volunteers, doing what needed to be done for humans they’d never met, simply because it was the right thing to do.
Numbers in any disaster are sticky and hard to exactly pin down. Rescuers have better things to be doing than paperwork. However, it is estimated that the hundreds of volunteers of the Cajun Navy, just Americans doing what we do best, rescued over 6,000 Houstonians from catastrophic flooding. The United States Coast Guard, with a $4.6 billion budget by comparison, rescued about 4,500.
More than Disaster Relief
Disaster relief is often where it’s most easy to see, as the reporters are on the ground and the news cameras are rolling, but this type of voluntary cooperation happens all the time. It is in everything from the classic example of helping an old lady cross the street or helping a single mother through tough times to the thousands of Americans who pitch in to help veterans recover from the horrors of war.
In 2018, American voluntaryism smashed records with 30% of Americans volunteering a total of 6.9 billion hours in a single year for their communities, churches, and vulnerable populations. There are over 314,000 public charities in the U.S. today, and that number is growing every year.
Hundreds of millions of us donate to crowdfunding sites to help people pay for unexpected expenses, get new ventures off the ground, and help others in need. To some this seems like a tragedy, but over 120 million donations worth over $9 billion later, we can see how generous Americans are to their fellow Americans in time of need.
Charities and purpose-driven for-profits are outperforming government agencies at nearly every turn, and we are gradually losing faith in government to solve complicated social problems. Even though these voluntary actions may not get the media coverage and press conferences of suit-wearing politicians, this robust social safety net is upheld by millions of Americans working to lift up Americans in need.
A Solution to our Toxic Political Climate
And yet, according to Gallup polling, 77% of Americans believe we are more divided than ever before. This has manifested itself on both sides of the political spectrum in such ugly ways as public shaming, cancel culture, and even violence. Many of us can recall a time in recent years where a friend or family member was “unfriended” on social media or was cut out of someone’s life purely due to their political views. Blame has been laid at the feet of many things for this: social media, angry words from politicians, rampant sexism and racism—even Russian propaganda.
The answer is far more simple. Instead of relying on the very cooperation we so enjoy and participate in in our daily lives, we have turned to forcing our neighbors to adopt the solutions we think are best for them. We line up to the ballot boxes like lining up for war—to the victors go the spoils, and to the losers, they shall pay. We fear the American who dresses different, holds different personal views, and votes for people we disagree with. We are players in a winner-take-all game, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to lose.
That’s not how the men and women of the Cajun Navy viewed it. There was no regard or consideration for color, sex, or political affiliation. When certain reporters, for ratings, tried to sow such division, it was resoundingly rejected by both volunteers and those they were trying to help. What if we instead adopted their attitude—not just in disaster relief, but for each of the problems we are trying to solve?
What About Voluntaryism?
There’s actually a name for this philosophy: it’s called voluntaryism.
Like all ideologies, voluntaryism is the pursuit of an idea. Also, like all ideologies, the idea is the ideal, unlikely to be fully realized at any point, but still the north star that guides us towards a better future.
Voluntaryism simply states that the ideal is that all human interaction should be voluntary—that we build better communities, better societies, and a better world when we use cooperative means to solve problems rather than those where we take from our neighbor to benefit ourselves.
Voluntaryism means more Cajun navies everywhere. It is Cajun food banks. It is Cajun health clinics. It is Cajun shelters. It is Americans doing what we do best: it is helping one another.
Voluntaryism is also bigger than that. Voluntaryism is every win-win transaction in business, in charity, and in society. If the hammer and sickle represents communism and the raised fist represents socialism, it is the handshake that represents voluntaryism. Not me, not us versus them, but you and me together.
Perhaps that is too radical a proposition for America today. Perhaps we are too angry at each other to cooperate. But it is in the rough times that our values truly matter, and I choose to believe in us. I choose to believe for the 5-year-old who will live because of the kindness of strangers, for the dialysis patient who was airlifted by private helicopter, and for the family on the 3rd floor rescued by a fisherman from Louisiana.
I choose to believe in my fellow Americans. That’s why I’m a voluntaryist.