Discovering the Value of Volunteering Through Experience

By Nicolas Bencherki


As I entered the building, the stench burned my nostrils. The air in the building smelled like nothing I had ever experienced – I would later understand this was the odor of a rare type of mold that developed following the building’s severe water infiltrations. I kept walking, following Lindsey up the stairs, although I now had a headache and felt in my guts an urge to leave this place. However, I had said I would be there to visit Sahan, a refugee claimant who had just arrived in Montreal, and had been nearly coerced to rent an apartment in this decrepit building. He had called the tenants’ association to tell how, the day before, the property owner had hit Sahan with a loose window pane, nearly injuring him, but he did not dare call the police because of his drinking problem. We were on our way to meet him.

Sahan took a while to answer when we knocked at his door. When he finally opened, we understood that he was sleeping, and probably inebriated. I thought to myself that if I had no job and lived in such a place, I would be drinking, too. The short man must have been in his forties but had a coy smile and a respectful tone that made him appear almost boyish. He took us for a tour of the apartment to show us the spots that were deteriorated, but no sooner had we taken a few steps inside that Lindsey and I, wide-eyed and mouth agape, shared a disconcerted look: the ceiling had fallen down in living room and the floor was damp with water. Mold was all over the walls and the stench was even stronger inside the apartment than it was in the hallways.

At that moment, I felt torn between two options. On the one hand, deep inside I felt that this was not meant for me: I thought I would be helping people with legal issues. I had even been hit in the face by a slum lord and could live with that. The smell, the filthy apartment, the headache, though, that was too much; I literally had not signed up for this. I was putting my health at risk, but more importantly, I found it all repulsive in a way that I could not control.

On the other hand, though, as we spoke with Sahan, I could not help but feel sorry for that man, who was an English teacher back home, escaped a war, did odd jobs all over the place, and was now just trying to mend his life back into one piece. I had the luxury of just being able to turn back, walk a few blocks, take the subway, and be sleeping in my warm bed at home. That place I found so repulsive, that was his home. He had nowhere else to go.

Photo by Felicity Tsering Chödron Hamer.

I remember thinking about this while Lindsey took pictures of the apartment. Then, almost on autopilot, I asked Sahan a few questions about the fight with the property owner and told him we would meet in a few hours at the corner to walk together to the police station for him to file a complaint. When we left, Lindsey told me: “That’s so nice of you! You didn’t have to do this, you only volunteered to accompany me.” I knew I didn’t have to, but I felt I had to do that, to help Sahan, as long as I could sleep in a dry bed and not him.

Some reference to go further:

Beyes, T. (2016). Colour and Organization Studies. Organization Studies, 0170840616663240.

Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography (Second edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Warren, S. (2008). Empirical Challenges in Organizational Aesthetics Research: Towards a Sensual Methodology. Organization Studies, 29(4), 559‑580.

Reference on this research: 

Bencherki, N., & Bourgoin, A. (2017). Property and Organization Studies. Organization Studies.

Bencherki, N. (2012). The hybrid performance of a district, the limits of speech acts and the possibility of a material ethics: a study of the work of a tenants association in Montréal. Collegium, 13, 28–44.

Cooren, F., Bencherki, N., Chaput, M., & Vásquez, C. (2015). The Communicative Constitution of Strategy-Making: Exploring Fleeting Moments of Strategy. In D. Golsorkhi, L. Rouleau, D. Seidl, & E. Vaara (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice (pp. 370–393). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vásquez, C., Bencherki, N., Cooren, F., & Sergi, V. (2018). From ‘matters of concern’ to ‘matters of authority’: Reflecting on the performativity of strategy in writing a strategic plan. Long-Range Planning, 51(3), 417–435.