Volunteer Task Force AX

Attendees in cosplay stand in front of a booth inside the Anime Expo's Artist Alley in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Jose Herrera.
Attendees in cosplay stand in front of a booth inside the Anime Expo’s Artist Alley in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Jose Herrera.

Hair as light as low simmering ember, tied back with a black hairband into an impeccable ponytail, anthropology major and Pierce College student Brenna Perteet increases her pace as she rushes into Starbucks. Cream, sugar, spices and warm baking dough engulf her senses while she cuts ahead of the growing line. She ordered her coffee online the night before.  

Outside she takes a few gulps of the caffeinated concoction, chasing away any remaining sense of weariness. She’s dressed in civilian clothing and takes a moment to readjust her hydration pack and plug batteries into her headset.  

Perteet completes a sound check, confirming that her headset is ready to handle the next 40 work hours ahead of her. With everything in place, she heads down the street into the fray where a line snaking around the Los Angeles Convention Center for the 2016 Anime Expo foreshadows the chaos to ensue, all the while her identification as assistant manager tails behind her.

“I started originally volunteering at Anime Expo as an attendee because they have volunteering where you can help out for a couple of hours with your pass, and I saw how much work goes into it and how much people appreciate the work that they do, and so I became full-time staff after doing the attendee staffer for two years,” Perteet says.

The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) has hosted Anime Expo for the last 24 years. The 2016 Anime Expo brought approximately 90,500 attendees during four days, July 2-5.  

SPJA brings together Japanese animation (anime), manga, which is similar to western comic books, artists inspired by anime, writers, costume players (cosplayers), companies and shop owners for people to enjoy and participate in a multitude of events and panels.  

Throughout the event, men and women of varying ages wearing rose-colored shirts with the words “Volunteer” stamped in the center welcome and assist attendees.

“Nobody realizes that most every single staff member you see at the Anime Expo is actually a volunteer,” Perteet says. “The only ones that aren’t [volunteers] are the ones wearing red polo shirts because they are hired by the convention center.  But everyone else, if they are wearing a vest, regular clothes, or have the staff badge, they are a volunteer. We don’t get paid, we do it because we like it.”

According to Perteet, there are more than 200 volunteers organized into teams in various levels, such as the Corrective, Customer Service, Premiere Lounge, Access Control and Pre-registration departments, which has sub-categories of Exhibit Hall and Artist Alley. She managed one team composed of seven for the Exhibit Hall.

Perteet’s duties included hiring staff, heading the interviewing process and managing her team. However, there’s an extra duty her position requires.

“On site our job is to get yelled at, so if any of our staffers are getting yelled at they can be like, ‘Hold on, let me get my manager.’” Perteet says. “They come bring us and we basically are the ones who take the brunt of it.”

Anime Expo lasts four days, with an extra day before anything takes place for attendees to obtain their passes. Day zero, or “line con,” is when hundreds of people wait hours for their passes so that they don’t have to wait during the convention days.

“We were dealing with the Exhibit Hall,” Perteet says. “We weren’t dealing with the regular attendees.  So, the Exhibit Hall is a lot easier and a lot harder at the same time because we aren’t dealing with someone who payed $90 for their pass. We were dealing with someone who payed $5,000 for a little booth. And I did have that number thrown at me, that’s how I know.”

The following days become progressively better as the workload gets lighter, according to Perteet. She has history with the Anime Expo. She attended multiple times before because she had an interest in the subject. However, volunteers don’t need a strong affiliation with animation to participate.

Stephanie Zavaleta, 25, is a freelance digital artist inspired by Disney. During high school, she was an avid viewer of anime, but when she attended Otis College of Art and Design, she stopped. However, she began volunteering in 2014 and worked as an assistant manager under the Artist Alley department.

Zavaleta describes herself as the kind of person who’s only interested in the Exhibit Hall and the Artist Alley.

“I get bored easily afterwards. What do I do know,” Zavaleta says. “I decided to take on volunteering and I did it. It keeps me entertained and keeps me feeling like I have a purpose. Overall, my best interest is to make the the convention as wonderful as possible and that guests are having a good time. That’s the reason why I decided to volunteer.”

Volunteers need to be willing to commit the time, effort and cooperation to effectively work within a time frame; those are the qualities that Perteet and Zavaleta want.  

Zavaleta explains that in the job industry people have to work in teams and that it would be insufficient to try to be the lone wolf. She says volunteering is a good experience that demonstrates that. During the four days, it is the job of the volunteers to represent the SPJ positively and accurately.

“When guests come in to the Anime Expo, especially guests who are going to the convention for the first time, you are their first user experience,” Zavaleta says. “You are the first people that they are going to connect with, and if you give a bad impression right away that’s going to impact their experience at the con immediately.”

Attendees come from across the country and even from different parts of the world. Perteet recalls a day when she helped look for a Chinese interpreter to communicate with a guest who had came from China to attend the expo.  

Although volunteers are there to work, they are able to explore what Anime Expo has to offer. The managers are accommodating and flexible with their teams so that volunteers have time to be part of the wonder, Perteet says.

“It wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t get a chance to explore,” Perteet says. “We make sure our staff has enough time to go see things too. We specifically schedule time off so that we all go at one point or another during the day so that we can get into Artist Alley and Exhibit Hall.”  

The SPJA also provides benefits to their volunteers such as paying for the hotel and subsidizing some money to purchase food.  

Apart from the benefits, Zavaleta says the best part about the experience is not the panels, exhibits, or things she purchases, but the people she meets.  

“I can say I got close to the other managers who I started working with three years ago,” Zavaleta says.  “We do things outside of con, so for example I just registered with them to run half a marathon in October. You definitely build a strong sense of friendship and community after con.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Chadwick Snow explains that in the field of social psychology there is research out there that supports the hypothesis that people who volunteer do it out of some form of personal gain.  

Another possibility, Snow explains, is that the person or people are in a good mood and desire to substantiate it or people volunteer out of empathy for a cause. People search for like-minded individuals or communities that they will feel accepted in, Snow says.  

“From an evolutionary perspective, there is a primitive emotion to protect your own,”  Snow says.

People who have an interest in something uncommon to the masses, such as Japanese animation, are sometimes faced with negative opinions.  

“This is their passion and they’re in a community that they’re really interested in,” Zavaleta says. “This is what makes them comfortable and being in this community makes them happy. It’s something that should be respected.”

By the end of the fourth day, volunteers gathered in the west lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center to congratulate one another on another successful year.    

“Honestly, it’s a really rewarding feeling,” Perteet says.  “I helped put this on. Holy crap, that’s so cool.”