El Proyecto de Lavanda

My tamales must be getting cold. Almost as soon as the thought strikes me, it’s whisked away on the breeze passing through the boat. Other tajineras drift by us. They float lazily in the river like driftwood. A woman with a silver braid inches closer in her ramshackle tajinera. Virgins of Guadalupe, medallions, and bundles of cilantro are piled up beside her. This very scene could have been taking place decades ago, even a century ago. Before the influx of zinc-nosed, safari hatted-gringos with our penchant for street tacos and Che Guevara t-shirts. What was Xochimilco like before us? I stare at the woman, looking for an answer. Did I have a right to be here? I get so caught up in my thoughts that I forget all about the tamales.

The next tajinera to pass by is loaded down with bouquets of mango florets. Dark red peels are shaved off in a single flourish. The bright orange flesh that remains is transformed into a blossom with the tip of a knife. Juicy petals glisten in the sun. For the coup de grâce, a skewer is inserted at the base with a torero’s precision. Each mango is baptized with chile, salt, and lime before it is passed from boat to boat until it reaches its new owner.


Ten pesos later and I’m holding my own mango flower. I pluck off the first petals and turn to one of my dining companions. “How old d’you think the guy rowing this boat is?”

“Mmm. Maybe 15,” Axidi says.

I’m hoping this is just a summer job at that the boy is going back to school in the fall. I think about bringing this up, but reason that labor politics isn’t the most appropriate subject of conversation for a relaxing boat ride.

Little waves lapping the bow of the boat eat up the silence between us. The remnants of my mango flower are withering on my empty plate. We spot a patch of land ahead with what appears to be a dock jutting out into water. This is a chinampa, a floating garden. Designed by the Olmecs 2,000 years ago, each chinampa is host to a milpa. Food is grown on the milpas in a polycrop system, which makes it a fully sustainable farm. Someone once told me the chinampas could feed all 20 million inhabitants of Mexico City, if utilized properly. But people buy their groceries at Walmart instead.


“My dad sold corn in the D.F. when he was a kid.” Axidi isn’t looking at me. Her eyes are focused on the chinampa ahead, but I know she’s talking to me.

“He did?”

“Yeah, from the time he was six until high school. On the streets, you know? My parents didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I guess that’s why they went to the U.S. Anyway, I just mean, when you asked that, it made me think about how that could have been my dad. Or if we had stayed in Mexico, it could have been my brother.” She adjusts her sunglasses and fusses with the straw in her agua de jamaica.

“That must be a lot to think about.”

“Yeah, like, my dad sold corn on the street right here and now I go to boarding school and study abroad and shit. My parents can’t even come back here in case they got caught. They don’t have their papers, you know?”

“Yeah.” We stare at the cold tamales between us.

“My mom told me all the girls go on the pill before they leave Mexico because everyone gets raped before the border. Did you know that?” Her eyes meet mine. I shake my head.

“I don’t know why I told you that,” she continues. “It’s just so weird. I’m here and they’re back in California. I’ve just been thinking about it a lot. It’s like coming home, but it’s not your home. You know?”

Clouds roll in and the umbrellas come out. I want to say something that lets her know I care, but that I’m not assuming I know what it’s like to be the child of Mexican immigrants in Trump’s America. I want to close the space between us somehow. I want to tell her that I’ve been looking for my home for a long, long time. I stay quiet.


“Painting reminds me of him,” Axidi calls back to me as we file out of the boat and onto the chinampa. “He started a painting and construction business back in the U.S. Isn’t that such a stereotype?” She laughs.

I know she’s referring to the volunteer work we’ve been doing back in Guanajuato. We’re painting an albergue, a shelter, for families who have loved ones in the hospital nearby. Each day, after we put on the final coat, we wear our paint stains out the door like medals. We want to feel that we have done something good and lasting. When we go home to our host families at night, we reluctantly peel the mustard yellow splotches off our skin. “Hoy fue duro. Pero hicimos mucho,” we announce at the dinner table. Today was hard. But we got a lot done.

The paint is already starting to chip by the time we finish the service project.


My fingers wrap around a scythe. It’s the first time I’ve ever held one. I test the weight in my hand. Light.

Our backs are bent low over the rows and rows of plants. Hands pass me a bundle of fresh-cut lavender. I remove the stems below the flowers and pass it on to other hands, which will tie it with twine. A bee lands on my sleeve. I stop snapping the stems and steady my breathing to hear it buzz.

I think back to the last time I had my hands in the dirt. Before college, surely. Most likely before high school. I remember our 8th grade class adopting a highway and plucking weeds from the medians. My small fists clamped around dandelions. I remember summer camp by the lake, covered in algae after a swim. I remember killing tomatoes, onions, and chives the summer I decided to become self-sufficient, to live off the land.

But everything about this is different. My body feels strong and right next to so many others under the sun.

Tomemos un descanso,” a voice calls out.

For our break, we crowd into someone’s kitchen, waiting to try our hand at making tortillas. The comal sizzles with each slab of masa. Mine comes out a little lopsided, but I like it. I put a pumpkin flower inside and eat it so hot that it burns my mouth.

The woman who is teaching us how to make tortillas is named Señora Simona. She has 22 children.

“We started the community 34 years ago,” she begins her charla. “We left the old ranch because they treated us badly. When we got here, we had no water, no food, no nothing.”

“Where did you sleep?” someone asks.

“Wherever we could. They beat us bad those first few days. But we stayed.” She slaps another tortilla onto the comal. “Y, pues, eso.” And that’s that.


From talking to one of her children, I piece together this narrative:

The farmers were promised the land they worked on back at their old ranch, but the government decided to give it to another patrón instead. So the workers chose to leave and to found their own community instead of remaining on that land and continuing to be indentured servants.

Years later, they started the Lavender Project to help solve the emigration crisis. The idea was to provide jobs to community members so they wouldn’t have to cross the border into the U.S. in search of steady work. They chose lavender because it does well in the market and the plants can survive without a lot of water, which is one thing they don’t have. The community doesn’t have any potable water and the water they do have is contaminated with arsenic. A decade ago, eight women built cisterns for every family in the community that wanted one. Now they can collect rainwater to drink. The only problem is that with climate change, it’s been raining less and less, so now they’re facing another challenge.

I taste the sweat on my lips as I take a swig of my Dasani.

After the talk, we’re taken to the shed where lavender oil is produced from the dried bundles hanging above us. We are led through the lavender’s life cycle – planting, harvesting, and distillation. We learn about the different types of lavender. Lavanda dulce is for the kitchen while lavanda de groso is destined for perfumes and soaps.


Our volunteer work for the afternoon consists of making lavender soap. When we cut the bars of soap in the backroom, our hands work in unison. One hand holds a knife to cut the large blocks as another shaves off the rough edges, while still other hands work the leftover shavings into shining globes. The air is heady with the scent of lavender and rosemary. We take deep breaths and puff our bellies out on the inhale. We smile at each other. We are proud of our sore muscles and our sunburns.

When we get back to the U.S., we will write about this moment on résumés and in travel blogs. We will talk about the month we spent volunteering in Mexico on dates and during interviews. We will forget Sra. Simona’s name. We will think about starting a fundraiser to buy more cisterns for her community, but we will forget about it over the ensuing weeks. We will forget how to make tortillas and how to hold a scythe. We will forget what it’s like to run out of drinking water for the day. But we will remember the sticky feeling of lavender on our sunburnt skin.

After we finish with the soap, we log how many bars we made into the book and clean up our work stations. We turn off the lights and take off our purple-stained aprons. We go back to our homestays and pack our bags to leave in the morning. Today was hard, we think. But we got a lot done.



Tapir Shit: A Meditation on the Interconnectedness of Life

Omnia vivunt, omnia inter se conexa
Everything is alive; everything is interconnected.”     – Cicero

Everything is silent. Phones that usually buzz with notifications are paralyzed without WiFi. Our steps are softened by cookeina caps and jewel beetle exoskeletons. My breath, coming out in ragged exhales from the ascent, instinctively falls into a gentle rhythm. Waiting. Our heads crane in the direction of the pineapple field, our eyes focusing on a moving black shape.

Deep in the Costa Rican rainforest, I find myself face-to-face with what appears to be a cross between an anteater and a wild boar. Out come the iPhones to capture whatever the hell it is on our tiny rectangular screens. I re-sheath my phone safely in the pocket of my hip and trendy pants-to-shorts (panorts? shants?). I’m confident that my auspicious sighting will live on forever in its very own Google Drive folder.

The lighting! The saturation! The brilliant greens and yellows of the forest foliage. Nature is my canvas. I’m basically Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ll quit my job, move to New Mexico, and paint yonic watercolors of technicolor orchids for the rest of my days.

Except that, upon inspection, all my photos are all of pixelated, lint-grey globs. Shit.

Forced to live in the moment, I ask our guide what this majestic creature is doing as we spy on it from our hideaway.

He leans in close to me so that I can see the whites of his eyes from behind the elephant ear leaves. “It makes the caca.”

I nod and steer my eyes back onto the pig.

The biology teacher next to me starts to tear up. “I always cry when I see a tapir,” she explains.

Now, dear reader, I’ll have you know that I am an avid hiker. I enjoy flowers and trees and the serendipitous freshwater stream flowing from somewhere high up in the mountains. I like being out in nature and, although my jewelry collection and wildly elaborate skincare routine would suggest otherwise, I don’t even mind creepy-crawlies like tarantulas. But I draw the line at watching an animal take a shit. Dumbfounded as to how Gisella could possibly be moved to tears at the sight, I do what any reasonable human would do. I say, “Of course, absolutely” and hand her a tissue.


Days later we’re at a presentation by Nãi Conservation founder, Esteban. Kids are packed into the building and rain is slapping hard against the wood paneling. Outside, abandoned hammocks toss their leaves out into the storm as Esteban adjusts the projector. He explains that the goal of his NGO is to save the endangered tapir – the very same pig thing that I had scoffed at only days earlier.

Esteban points to the distorted graph on the makeshift screen, a wrinkled bedsheet pilfered from the hotel. Tapirs are endemic to Central America, I learn. They gather nuts and seeds much like squirrels, which they either forget about or disperse around the rainforest via their scat. Esteban, a biologist by trade, goes on to say that this distribution of seeds is an invaluable ecosystem service. With fewer tapirs to eat the seeds and poop them out, fewer trees get planted, which means fewer homes for animals, less tree cover for moss and fungi, and, consequently, less oxygen for humans to breathe.

As it is, there are less than one hundred tapirs confirmed living in the Costa Rican rainforests and the population is decreasing with each incidence of roadkill. Roads have been built that cut through protected rainforest land, which causes habitat fragmentation – tapirs and other animals try to cross the roads to locate other sources of food or shelter, and are inevitably run over. Interestingly, this surge in tapirs killed by vehicles has coincided with pineapple companies demanding shorter and shorter transportation times for their products. Truck drivers speed to meet their quotas and hit tapirs in the process. Esteban’s records show that twenty tapirs have been killed already this year, leaving the population count perilously low.

What I had witnessed the other day – a weird-looking animal taking a dump – was no less than a miracle.

As it turned out, I didn’t know shit about… well, shit.

Esteban’s talk reminded me of our trip to the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens a couple days earlier. An intern, Matthew, talked about how cockroaches are vital in any ecosystem – because they’re such good decomposers, we’d be swimming in mountains of waste without them. He also claimed cockroaches are surprisingly clean and popped one in his mouth to prove it. I made a valiant effort not to squirm in my seat, but wound up doing a seated variation of the potty dance. One thing did ring clear, though – everything’s interconnected in ways we don’t even realize. Cockroaches keep us clean and tapir poo is saving the rainforest.

Nature’s wild, man.

After Esteban’s talk, we got to meet the director of the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (Children’s Eternal Rainforest). She explained that the rainforest conservation effort had very humble beginnings. In 1981, Eha Kern’s elementary school students in Sweden fundraised to save 50 acres of Costa Rican rainforest in the Peñas Blancas Valley. NGOs and organizations worldwide followed suit and the Costa Rican government even agreed to match donations. Now the BEN consists of over 57,000 acres of protected land.

Around the same time in the 80s, fast food chains were coming on the scene in the U.S., which all relied on cheap beef raised in Latin America. (These were the pre-pink slime days.) Costa Rica began clearing massive amounts of rainforest land for cattle pastures to meet the demands of the burgeoning fast food industry. This turned out to be not such a good idea, given the ensuing deforestation and the special relationship we humans have with trees – in that we need them to breathe.


As a result, folks in the U.S. started boycotting fast food chains that used meat imported from Latin America, prompting those corporations to seek out other meat sources. (Or should I say, “meat-like”?) A U.S. biologist, Daniel Janzen, even started raising funds to buy rainforest land and donate it to the Costa Rican national government for conservation. Finally, the Costa Rican government itself jumped on board and started establishing national parks in an effort to save the imperiled rainforest land.

This whole “Hamburger Connection” talk piqued my interest largely because our modern-day relationship to food is a perennial bee in my bonnet. On the other hand, I was stoked to hear this example of people working together – across cultural, linguistic, and international barriers – to un-fuck a dire situation.

If you’re also a fan of un-fucking dire situations, throw a couple dollars at the BEN and/or Nãi to keep tapirs happily eating, pooping, and saving the rainforest in the process:



My favorite thing about traveling, whether it’s to the Costa Rican rainforest or to the Sahara Desert (that one’s still on my list), is being reminded of how much I have to learn. This time around, a Swedish elementary school class from back in the ’80s showed me the importance of taking initiative, giant cockroaches illustrated the value of all life (even the creepy crawly kind), and an endangered animal’s scat taught me that everything is interconnected.

Here’s to finding teachers in unlikely places.






The stretch of dirt road before us snakes into darkness. The air is thick with mosquitos. My forehead armpits back are anointed with sweat. Outside the bus, a rickshaw slouches along, its driver deep in alcoholic reverie.

We enter the jungle.

“But, boys have smaller bladders than girls, so we have to let them go. Girls can hold it, but boys can’t,” argues a fellow teacher, an actual adult human so misinformed about biology that I doubt he could locate his own urethra.

I opt for the most tactful response I can muster – laughing in his face.

I tell him that if the boys get out to pee, I’m going, too. To hell with social mores, sexist bullshit, and my apparently gargantuan bladder. Another teacher leans over and whispers in my ear, “That’s how girls get abducted. They get out to relieve themselves and men in trucks just swoop them right up. It happens all the time in India.” Her eyebrows raise, dare me to defy her.

I fold. On the off chance that her comments are more than scare tactics, I can’t risk dozens of girls being kidnapped on a school field trip.

“Let’s wait until we find somewhere where we all can get off and go, then. Boys and girls. It’ll be safer that way anyway,” I reason. But swathes of jungle have already begun to paint the bus windows in sickly greens and foreboding browns. Even the rickshaw we shared the road with for miles has limped off to safety.

We will not come across any more convenience stores with their sweet offerings of Panipuri and restrooms that are free of both child abductors and tigers on this leg of the journey.22135456_729716380570599_6072750704400210326_o“We’ll let the boys go they’ll be very quick you’ll see no need to worry and the girls can wait we will get there very soon very soon,” counters Tiny Male Bladder Expert, who seems to have his own bathroom needs in mind, not just those of his students.

I turn from him and address the students. “Raise your hand if you have to pee.” I hold my own hand high: a beacon, a flag of resistance.

The boys bemoan their inferior bladders. The girls throw their flags in the air.

Silence descends upon the bus. Students exchange frantic glances. Something rises in my throat. My mouth opens and a guttural sound – primal, even – escapes. It is a battle cry: NO ONE PEES TILL WE ALL PEE.

The bus creeps deeper into the heart of darkness.


“Ma’am please ma’am I have a very big need for the washroom please ma’am take pity on me.” The boy’s brow is knitted together. It looks like he’s just taken a bath in the Ganges.

Thinking more about tigers and sloth-bears than gender equality now, I meld my Teacher Voice with the Archetypal Mom Voice to utter the dreaded phrase: 15 more minutes.

15 minutes to freedom. 15 minutes to unbounded joy. 15 minutes to urinary ecstasy.

The boy sits. I remain standing, guiding my ship to the docks of deliverance.

An hour later, we disembark. Rice and dahl are being prepared by a fire. Monkeys gather to flash us and steal away into the night with our unattended plates.

I have never seen a monkey up close before. Then again, I have never been to the jungle in India before, either. I wonder if our long-lost relatives sympathize with our plight. They can relieve themselves whenever and wherever they like, while we bipeds are chained to the statutes of civilization.

I make eye contact with one of the anthropoids. He inches towards me, looking up at me with an understanding expression, and takes advantage of my moment of vulnerability to make off with my flashlight.

“I have thumbs!” I scream at the retreating monkey in retaliation, only to remember belatedly that most primates have thumbs, including monkeys.

I know what I have to do now. I pick up a fallen branch and fashion it into a cudgel. I will lead my students to freedom. I brandish my sword against our godless ancestors, a horde of spectating rhesuses, who cower in fear.

“Let’s find the restroom,” I call out into the abyss.

Half a dozen girls come out of nowhere and swarm around me.

Guided only by the light of the newly-updated Flashlight app on my iPhone, we encounter what looks like an abandoned shed. Upon closer inspection, we see that it’s the girls’ dorm, where the students will be sleeping tonight. Surely, it must have a restroom. But, alack, the door is locked.

Faces contort in anguish. “We have to pee.”

I can’t have bladders bursting everywhere like fireworks on the Fourth of July, so I make a decision. I pick the lock.

Girls pour into the room filled with enough cots for an army. “Where is it?” Desperate, they wander the rows.

“There it is.” The sharpest among them has set her eyes on the Holy Grail, shining in all its glory – a hole in the ground – reeking of the righteous victories of the women who came before us.

“Go in peace, my children,” I call to them from outside, as I guard the door with my makeshift club.

That night, around the campfire, the girls promise me they will tell their daughters and their daughters’ daughters the story of the brave woman who saved their lives. But, first, they chime, eyes twinkling with mischief, “You have to tell a scary story.”

And, so, I begin. “The stretch of dirt road before us snakes into darkness…”


Kindly Smile, Please: India Update

Today’s Hindi lesson:
Aap kaise ho? [Aap kay-say HO?] = How are you?
Mai achaa hu. [May ach-AH hoo] = I’m fine.
Mai teek hu. = I’m okay.
Mai uDAAS hu. = I’m sad.
Mai khush hu. [May kush hu.] = I’m happy.

Mai khush hu.

Today the new staff had an orientation, during which I learned some Ayurveda on the low with Brianca, who works at the front desk, and Suryanarayana, the new Telugu teacher. Here’s a tip I learned: neem leaves + serra [raw cumin seeds] followed by 2 oz. warm water = A+ digestion and clear complexion. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

I also got to meet Dr. Anita, who is the new Head of the English Department. She got her doctorate in Comparative Literature with a focus on Greek and Latin from Yale and she just spent the last two years in Bangladesh as a TOK coordinator for an IB school there.

Manasi, the new math teacher, was the picture of elegance in her maroon sari, gold jewelry, and bindi. She’s a soft-spoken woman who simultaneously exudes confidence. Her husband and two kids just arrived from Pune, but her husband will stay in the city and visit on weekends. When we got our new SIM cards, Manasi carefully tore off a sheet of graph paper and used it as a wrapper for my old card so that I wouldn’t lose it.


Ajey, the French and English teacher who just got back from France, gave us a tour of campus. We got to see the junior and senior buildings, which were filled with students’ artwork and punctuated by airy, open breezeways. The flowers were in bloom and butterflies flitted around us as we walked. Of course, Afeera came with us. We talked about traveling and food and teaching. I waited with her while some women in saris and aprons cleaned her apartment. She spoke Hindi with them, but she said there’s still a language gap, since they mostly speak Telugu, the local language. And, according to her, Hindi and Telugu are pretty dissimilar.

Speaking of Telugu, the new Telugu teacher here, Surya, is my new favorite dude. He was raised in a village, an old-school, thatched-roof-style one. He hardly speaks at all, but when he does, he’s quoting poetry or naming plants. There are neem trees on campus, so he and Manasi showed me which leaves were tender and good to eat, and then they taught me how to use them. Surya uses the branch of the tree to brush his teeth every day. I plucked some leaves and ate them. Call it the placebo effect, but I feel healthier already. Surya also pointed out the strikingly similar leaves of another tree, which are poisonous. He told me to take a photo and to label it as “NOT NEEM” in my phone.


Then, he wanted to take a photo of me with the tree. “Kindly smile, please,” Surya said. I had never heard anything so courteous in my damn life. So, naturally, I jumped in there and started posing with some neem.

Afterwards, we had rice, a cauliflower and potato thing, dahl, salad, paneer, and milk dessert ball things for lunch (although I abstained from the dessert balls). Philip, who’s Christian, prayed before his meal, at a table of three Hindus eating their vegetarian food and two Muslims in hijabs, all bouncing back and forth between Arabic and Hindi. Seeing that kind of pluralism and mutual respect was refreshing.

In the evening, Vasu, an ESL teacher, took me aside and showed me where she lives. (She’s a dorm parent, too.) I told her I’m trying to learn Hindi, so she started talking to me entirely in Hindi. Since she’s so good at teaching languages, I was able to pick up on what she was saying just from her tone of voice and hand gestures. I’m making a serious effort to learn at least one Hindi expression or grammar point per day. Fingers crossed!

Not Neem Next to Neem

Vasu also told me a story about a student she had a few years ago. This little girl in her Basic English class would always arrive to class late. She could never seem to remember her uniform. One day, Vasu was on a bus, passing a village on her way into the city. A pig-tailed child with no shoes came out of a mud hut and started waving at Vasu. Vasu immediately recognized the girl as her student. In that moment, she realized the girl was late to class because there was no reliable public transportation from that village and that she never wore her uniform because she couldn’t afford one.

For Vasu, this was a profound event. She told me that after that experience, she felt that the Academy does not simply give lip service to the idea of helping those in need. Rather, it actually puts theory into practice by granting scholarships to all students who are unable to pay tuition, including that little girl. Since that day, Vasu has become even more dedicated to her work as an educator at the Academy and she’s become further invested in the well-being of the students here.

I was elated to hear Vasu’s story and I know she is making a difference in her students’ lives. At the same time, her story left me with quite a few lines of intellectual inquiry that I would like to explore further. Reflecting on this little girl and her experiences, I wonder: 1) How has being educated at the Academy fundamentally impacted her life? Has this experience been positive or negative overall? Can we assume that because the classes she is taking are taught by highly-qualified educators that her educational experience will suited to her individual needs and encourage her to pursue her passions as an autonomous, critical thinker? 2) Can we expect that her classmates will be open and welcoming of her background, or should we anticipate some derisive comments and/or bullying? How does this social climate affect her learning? and 3) How do we define a “good education”? When we say “We’re changing this child’s life,” what do we mean? Do we simply mean that in issuing them a piece of paper with embossed letterhead they will be able to seamlessly move up from a mud hut to rat-infested, one-room apartment in the city?

In other words, as discussed in Schooling the World in 10 Easy Steps, “lifting children out of poverty” is a questionable foundation on which to base an educational model. That poverty exists is contingent on systemic oppression, not on how many degrees any given person has. That anyone should have to starve or be unable to access medical care because that person doesn’t have a diploma is morally reprehensible. Therefore, the aims of education must necessarily go beyond social mobility.

And what about the hundreds of thousands of kids just like this little girl who did not receive a scholarship? Are they destined to a life of sweeping the very floor this young woman walks on every day at the Academy? I see women from the village doing just this every day – sweeping up fallen palm fronds, barefoot among goldenrods, their saris floating on top of crushed neem leaves. I have no doubt these women are paid fair wages – that is, an hourly rate comparable with competitors’ in the area. But I see them and think, “If the goal is to educate everyone and to ‘lift everyone up out of poverty,’ then, surely, these women are included in that statement.

The message espoused by teachers, parents, and career counselors alike is clear: “Study so you don’t wind up like these women.” But, by the same token, this idea implicitly follows: “We need these women to maintain our facilities in order to educate those whom we have deemed worthy.” In short, the labor of these women – and that of other folks in similar positions – is necessary, but not valued. 

Hindi Homework

I am not under the illusion that this issue is specific to the educational institution in which I find myself now (which does genuinely seem to value pluralism and service), nor that it is an India-specific problem. Rather, I think these are questions we should all have in mind in any discussion of education and/or social justice.

Who knows what I’ll think of all this in a few months? Maybe I’ll revisit the issue and decide everything I just wrote is total bullshit. Sometimes I worry that I shouldn’t even write an idea down because it might seem utterly inane to me in a matter of weeks. But, then, I reason, isn’t it a good thing when we glean insight from experiences? And that if we’re open to new perspectives, our views might change and evolve? I don’t know how my opinions will metamorphose, but, as always, I’m receptive to new ideas and interpretations, so feel free to share yours.




Schooling the World in 10 Easy Steps

Are we supporting oppressive systems in the classroom or are we challenging them?

With the new school year rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my views on education have changed throughout the years. In high school, I was a very Type A student. I had to make straight As in all my classes or I would feel like a failure. In college, I realized the importance of a holistic education and I allowed myself to pursue extracurriculars that I enjoyed – from volunteering at the LGBTQ Center to taking yoga classes to learning to paint (although the jury’s still out on exactly how well I learned to paint…). Teaching English in Chile last year and facilitating a high school summer abroad program in the Dominican Republic last month honed my perspectives on education even further. I’m curious to see how my opinions will change after my experiences here in India.

So, here are my thoughts on education as of right now. I’m excited to revisit them with more insight in a few months. Of course, many of these ideas have been articulated better elsewhere. Therefore, they are only described briefly here. I will provide sources when possible. I welcome comments – please feel free to share your thoughts below.

The main questions I’ve been toying around with are: What does education mean to us? How does education actually function? Do these two ideas match up? I think most Americans would say education is important for individuals as well as for the community, that education means cultivating good habits for future leaders and that it is essential in the creation of “productive members of society.” However, as I look back at my formative years, I find that those ideas are somewhat incongruous with the reality of the American educational system.

In my 9th grade American History class, we were taught that “African workers” came to “help out” on “Southern farms.” I do not think a lengthy explanation of the numerous ways in which this statement is problematic is necessary. Furthermore, we were taught to see “both sides” of the Civil War. The only women I learned about during four years of History classes were Queen Elizabeth, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. On the other hand, I was exposed to authors from around the world like Mukherjee, Ondaatje, and Achebe in my high school English classes, thanks in large part to the International Baccalaureate program. These perspectives served as a counterweight to the less diverse and nuanced material in other classes’ curricula.

In thinking about all this, I’ve been wondering: Where is the line between indoctrination and education? Are we teaching our kids critical thinking skills that will help them on their path of self-discovery and enable them to better face the unique challenges of the modern era? Or are we stuffing stale information, traces of history filtered through the pens of rich, white congressman and boards of education, tidbits of contorted truth blanched of any real value, down our children’s throats? In short, are we supporting oppressive systems in the classroom or are we challenging them?

1. The one-size-fits-all model of education should be abolished.

Students from different cultures learn differently. While that idea seems quite like common sense, with (neo)colonization, came the systematic implementation of Westernized educational practices and institutions in regions as far-flung as South America, Africa, and Asia. A not-so-subtle implication of this influx was the notion that if Western education was so superior, the Western world must, therefore, be intellectually superior as well. Today, we like to think we’re beyond those antiquated concepts of Euro-centrism. But I think we are a bit further from respecting cultural differences – both inside and outside the classroom – than we think.

To put it simply, Chilean children learn differently from Indian children. Children in Detroit learn differently from children in San Diego. Indeed, a child from Palmer Woods, a wealthy suburb in Detroit, would necessarily learn differently from her counterpart in Broadstreet, a significantly less affluent area of the city. We must accept that culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and myriad other factors affect the lived realities of children and, thus, make their learning experiences distinct.

For example, where I am currently located in India, the culture is more conservative than in the Dominican Republic and Chile, where I just taught. Some activities, videos, and songs that I used in Latin America will not be appropriate for the students here.

Moreover, my teaching style must also necessarily adapt to my Indian students. Whereas my Chilean students did not enjoy writing tasks, my Indian students might prefer writing over speaking. My Chilean students liked a certain degree of informality in the classroom, whereas Indian students seem to prefer a greater power distance in their learning environments.

TL;DR: Don’t try to force Westernized versions of education on other cultures. Within Western countries themselves, we need to account for cultural differences that contribute to variations in learning styles and adapt our teaching methods accordingly.

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Photo credit: borgenproject.org

2. Stop trying to educate people out of poverty.

I will rein in my discussion of this topic, because this could stretch into an entire dissertation. My most concise, Tumblr-ized summary is as follows:

person: education is a good thing that is good

me: yes!

same person: let’s educate these people out of poverty

also me: no amount!!! of education!!! can compensate for!!! structural inequality!!! the problem is!!! systemic!!!

Schooling the World: The Last White Man’s Burden is a documentary that delves into this very issue. [I don’t own this documentary and all credit/rights of ownership go to the creators.] It’s a bit pathos-driven and presents a pretty one-sided argument, but I do think it raises a valid point about the implementation of Western educational systems in “developing” countries. The title of this blog post comes from this documentary. Of course the word “easy” in the title is somewhat ironic, since reforming education is no simple task.

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The White Man’s Burden, photo credit: ja.wikipedia.org


3. The banking model of education is obsolete and must be abolished.

“Our educational system has diminished our ability to ask questions in a very conscious and systemic manner… It is already apparent in our world today that all the information is out there and learning information is definitely not the key to a good life in the future. Seeking the right information from the abundance of information out there is a necessary skill. This simply means that we need to teach our children to ‘ask questions’ and this for me seems so contrary to what we are doing in schools today. We have no choice but to gear our pedagogical processes and ourselves to focus more on the child’s ability to raise questions.” – Syed Sultan Ahmed

The emergence of the internet means everyone has access to basic facts about history, math, and science. Knowledge is no longer constrained by vellum pages, transcribed by monks and exclusively passed on to the intellectual elite. Even in contrast with more recent times, one does not need access to a library and an encyclopedia to look up the capital of Switzerland, for example. In this day and age, knowledge is not passed from teacher to student like water into a cup. There’s so much water nowadays that we’re in swimming it – or at least trying to stay afloat.

So, we have to move beyond the notion of the teacher as the sole holder and distributor of knowledge. Engender a culture of co-learning. This logically necessitates a shift from rote memorization to asking more questions.

4. Tell the whole story.

Again, this topic could easily span hundreds of pages, so I will only echo my initial example of being taught about “African workers” in American History class. We must accurately portray and educate our students about issues like colonization, slavery, and imperialism. We must talk about the roles people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and individuals of various religious backgrounds have had throughout American history and that of the world.

TL;DR: Representation matters.

5. Emphasize learning for the sake of learning, not just job training.

I went to college to learn stuff. I loved almost everything about school when I was growing up – reading, writing, challenging myself with new ideas, hearing the thoughts of my peers, and I didn’t hate the positive reinforcement of good grades, either. I was so excited to attend a prestigious university known for its academic rigor and its emphasis on holistic education and pluralism. I knew I would need to get a job and support myself one day, but that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. It would surely happen eventually. In the meantime, I worked part-time jobs and took out student loans while studying.

My mother joined the Air Force at age eighteen so she could get some job training and escape her abusive and impoverished childhood home. She then went to a local college and obtained a degree in accounting so that she would have the means to support herself financially. She never took classes in art, philosophy, or literature in college – not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t afford them.

In summary: Ideally, the idea behind a liberal arts education is learning for knowledge’s sake. However, it’s a luxury not everyone can afford (I have the student loan debt to prove it.).

6. Teach students to be good stewards of the environment.

It is no secret that our planet is facing significant threats to its overall well-being. We need new ways of thinking and innovation if we are to effectively confront these issues.

Take this as an example: There is a green school in Uruguay that is entirely self-sustaining. It is constructed out of up-cycled glass bottles and plastic. The school also teaches children how to grow food in the organic, communal garden. Projects like Uruguay’s green school are exciting because they represent the possibility of teaching more than the quadratic equation or George Washington’s (mythical) cherry tree. They teach children the importance of caring for the environment and about their role in the ecosystem.


Image result for green school uruguay
Photo credit: Gulf News

7. Get rid of standardized tests.

Let me preface this by saying: Hey, I want the kid going to med school to know some biology. Sure, give her a subject-specific test. I grant that a respected psychologist should have passed his psychology tests in high school. And I agree that a veterinarian should know about animal physiology.

However, with that being said, standardized tests like the SATs have been proven to be classist and, moreover, near useless in terms of assessing a student’s “aptitude” for learning in institutions of higher education.


Standardized Testing Is Institutionalized Classist Discrimination

How Race and Class Relate to Standardized Tests

Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests

8. Encourage individuality and uniqueness – don’t just give them lip service.

“Just imagine a school or an educational system where teaching-learning experiences are directed, designed and delivered in such a way that every child finds himself/herself at the helm towards undertaking an independent, comprehensive, self-decisive voyage concerning academics as well as other aspects of life.” – Ashok Singh Guleria, Head of the English Department and Academic Coordinator at the Akal Academy Group of Schools

When I was in grade school, I didn’t have a natural ability for math. I hated myself for that. I worked so hard for years to consistently make As in Algebra, Geometry, Physics. I try not to have (or to admit having) regrets, but I would consider that to be one of the few. I wish I had dedicated that valuable time in my adolescence to focusing on what I was really interested in – writing, art, political science, languages – essentially, the humanities. Instead, I spent my time trying to fit myself into a distinctly masculine, logic-over-emotion mold that shunned the arts and humanities as “frilly” or “trivial.” Being smart meant excelling at what my male peers excelled at, and I wanted to be smart. So I did exactly that, because I thought I needed to elbow my way into the masculine realm if I were ever to be successful in a man’s world.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was actually asked why I wouldn’t “prefer Home Ec” over Advanced Algebra in 6th grade. So I took the Algebra class, made an A+, and felt that I had proven my teacher wrong. But, in retrospect, I wish I had had the nerve to do what I wanted to do, and not take the burden of eschewing gendered stereotypes onto my shoulders alone.

Side note: Of course, all of this is contingent upon more structural change so that kids don’t have anxiety about needing to excel academically just to get a good-paying job later on and support themselves.

9. Cultivate an environment of cooperation in place of competition.

At my university, the environment often felt so cutthroat that I wondered if we were being trained to become professionals striving to make the world a better place, or if were eventually going to be pitted against each other in a fight to the death, à la Hunger Games. Once, when I got sick, I asked my classmate what I missed in class and if I could borrow his notes from lecture. He said his handwriting was “illegible,” so I couldn’t see them, and he relayed to me that the upcoming test was postponed until the following week. I showed up the next day only to find that we did, in fact, have a test and that I had not prepared for it, since my classmate told me it had been rescheduled. All this so that he could get a higher score than I did.

Instances like this one made me wonder Why? We were both privileged enough to attend a prestigious university. We had different majors, so we were not competing for the same internships or jobs. It just did not make sense why we were putting each other down instead of lifting each other up.

Our competitive culture has its roots in capitalism and in the creation of a false scarcity of resources, to be sure. However, we as a society must be cognizant that if we encourage our students – our children – to be malicious and vindictive, we are going to wind up with malicious and vindictive adults, which simply is not conducive to a functioning, harmonious civilization.

Photo credit: the-professional-student

TL;DR: We should foster collaboration in educational environments instead of competition. This will enable students to learn more effectively and efficiently.

10. Challenge the very notion of education.

“How it is we have so much information, but know so little?”
― Noam Chomsky

What does it mean to learn? By what standard can we measure learning? These questions (among others) prompted me to complete the IB program in high school, and now to teach at an IB school. Questions like these also got me interested in the study abroad program that I co-led over the summer in the Dominican Republic. The focus on learning outside the classroom, learning through doing, and learning about different ways of doing things from individuals of another culture very much appealed to me. I would not claim that these organizations are perfect by any means, but they do represent some important possibilities for the future of education, at least in my book.

“Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds. But if children[‘s] … normal interest is maintained or even aroused, they can do all kinds of things in ways we don’t understand.”
― Noam Chomsky

You may be thinking that the propositions I have just made seem very idealistic. You certainly have a right to be skeptical and I always appreciate a healthy dose of realism.

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Copenhill, source: volund.dk

I recently watched an episode of the docu-series Abstract. This particular episode featured a Danish architect named Bjarke Ingels. He designs buildings centered around the ideas of affordable housing and sustainability. One of his constructions, the Copenhill, shows off a green power plant so clean that visitors can ski on a man-made slope on top of the generators. The driving force behind Ingel’s ideas is the concept of “Pragmatic Utopia” – that is, building a utopia one city block at a time. I am not under the illusion that it will be easy, but I do believe we can work toward a better society one classroom at a time.

What do you think?



***Cover image is original artwork by a student.***

First Impressions of India

Hey, everyone + Future Me reading this! I wanted to jot down some of my initial thoughts upon arriving in Hyderabad before I forgot.

Two days ago I took a fifteen-hour flight to Dubai (yikes, but at least I finally got to see Hidden Figures on the plane). I also saw a man use a plastic bag as a prayer mat right next to the bathroom, 40,000 feet in the sky. That’s dedication.

When I got to Dubai, I most definitely looked out of place in my hiking boots and fuchsia hoodie, since all the other women were wearing niqabs. I was worried about being culturally inappropriate, but then I spotted a couple women in saris and one woman wearing jeans. Also, people were generally chill and didn’t give two shits about my style choices.


I settled in at a restaurant and ordered a veggie bowl. The café was blasting Enrique Iglesias. Mid-song it cut to the call to prayer. The adhan was really beautiful, but also quite a stark contrast from “Súbeme La Radio.”

When I went to board the plane to go to India, the flight attendant told me I had been upgraded to first class. It was my first time ever flying first class and let me tell you: I was not ready. I was not emotionally prepared for fresh flowers in the bathroom and hot towels and three course meals on an airplane. I sat there with my hiking boots and the clothes I hadn’t changed in over 24 hours while I kept pushing buttons on the reclining chair until the flight attendant came and helped me. I longed for the cramped, economy seats with no legroom, where I could be a gross backpacker in peace. Even so, I got to watch the first 20 minutes of a Bollywood movie with Arabic subtitles before we landed. Cultural experience: ✓


Cut to Hyderabad – Jitendra from HR came to meet me at the airport and showed me my apartment. My first night was a little rough because there was no hot water and the mosquitos ate me alive. I finally got to sleep around 3:00 am. At 8:00 am, there was a knock at the door. Then four more knocks, because I was too comatose to get up. This kid then proceeded to set a tray of food on my table, bow, and exit wordlessly. I had no idea who this kid was, but I tried to thank him my limited Hindi. Next, three women in saris filed in and started mopping. I had no idea who these women are either, but I performed the part of Clueless Foreigner Smiles Cluelessly quite well.

Throughout the day, I realized that 1) I get free, bomb-ass vegetarian food here on campus, which I will most definitely be taking advantage of, and 2) My (very basic) Hindi skills are useless here because everyone speaks Telugu, the local language.

In the evening, I quite literally stumbled upon a Talent Show put on by group of exchange students from Syria, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kenya, and twelve other countries. It was amazing. The Indian students performed Bollywood songs in traditional garb, while the Syrian students did the same with Syrian music. A girl from Bangladesh read a poem in Bengali. In a Syrian-American duo, one kid played a qanun (traditional stringed Syrian instrument). Then this kid named Baqir from Tajikistan got on stage and he said first in Arabic and then in English, “I hope that one day we will have no more wars.” And he started playing “One Day,” which, incidentally, was written by an Orthodox Jew, Matisyahu. I appreciated the subtle nod to religious pluralism.


I was the only white person and non-Muslim in the room, which was really cool. I love getting outside my comfort zone and trying new stuff. That’s the only way you learn, right?

Also, all the kids were super sweet and wanted to practice their English with me: “My name is Mustafa and I am from Afghanistan! I like to play sports for a hobby! What is your name? From which country are you?”

I only hope my own students here will be that enthusiastic.

I also got to meet Afeera, who is living right below me with two TPPs. They’re interns and then at the end of their two year internship, they’ll get hired here at the Academy. Afeera’s a Social Sciences teacher from Delhi; she reads a ton, especially poetry. I really liked her. She mentioned that she likes contemporary spoken word poets like Sarah Kay in particular. I’m stoked to talk poetry with her and to share some of my favorites from Button Poetry.

But right now I’m going to unpack all the culturally inappropriate clothes I brought with me. Next thing on the agenda is buying some kurtas to wear so I don’t look a fool.




Wayward Whiteness in Paradise [Santiago, Dominican Republic]

This is a story about whiteness. Set against the backdrop of a Caribbean island featuring idyllic beaches, palm tree-dotted, rolling hills, and endemic poverty resulting from centuries of slavery and colonization, this story centers around the whiteness of its protagonist (mine). Occasional glimpses into the lived realities of some minor characters are offered by its author, but, by and large, it does not deviate from its first person limited point of view. The object of this vignette is neither to entertain nor inform. Its chief purpose lies in the preservation of an event in the memory of its author.


We begin our tale with a young woman firmly in the grips of adulthood, yet still grasping at straws when it comes to the Big Questions of Life: Who am I? Why am I here? Will I ever grow into a C cup or am I destined to a life filled with preposterously unsupportive bralettes, with no real need for underwire in sight? Despite these haunting queries floating around in the maelstrom of her mind, plaguing her every waking hour, the young woman has survived 1 heartbreak, 2 broken bones, 3 months backpacking around Latin America, 24 consecutive years of life, and countless rejection letters from literary journals. It should also be mentioned that this young woman is queer, cis, and white.

This young woman is, of course, me.

I had just gotten back from my year in Chile, followed by some solo wandering around Ecuador and Colombia, when I applied for a summer abroad program leader position in the Dominican Republic. The title of the program was “Service and Leadership,” so I was initially wary of the ways in which the concept of “service” would be handled. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised to find that concepts like the white savior complex were actually addressed in the curriculum provided us. During the program, my wonderful co-leader and I led daily reflections on developing intercultural skills and tried to broaden students’ definitions of “service” to include mutually-beneficial, reciprocal relationships with community members. The students’ final project was to incorporate what they learned from the Dominican NGO and to implement solutions to problems that their local communities face back home. That is, students were prompted to realize that members of the community are the ones best equipped to address the issues they face. It is not the place of outsiders to swoop in and “civilize,” “educate,” or otherwise alter a community so that it mirrors their own.

It is also worth noting that the students did, in fact, acknowledge and integrate these ideas, ultimately coming up with thoughtful final presentations that delved into those very issues.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set the stage: A tropical island, bachata music lingers in the air, intermingles between palm fronds lazily swaying in the breeze… as mosquitoes penetrate your flesh through shorts, underwear, socks, shoes, leeching off your lifeblood like the One Percent.


Enter fifteen kids – modern teens of the Snapchat era, oblivious to the musical stylings of MC Hammer, Destiny’s Child and (fortunately) Nickelback – conceived, incubated, and brought to life on Facebook timelines and Instagram filters. [In the distance, the angry voice of a retiree on a golf course in Florida shaking his fist at the sky, “These youngster ingrates will never know what Reagan did for this nation!”]

But I digress.

Of these fifteen kids who signed up for a summer service program abroad, two are Asian-American and two are Black. The other eleven are white. The Language and Culture program, which runs concurrently, consists of roughly 80% young women of color. “It’s that white savior thing,” comments one of their program leaders on why my kids are predominantly white.

The first week of orientation goes well. We visit a cacao plantation, learn about the NGO we’ll be working with, and check out one too many colonial fortresses for my taste. The kids are cool, I love my co-leader (shout out to Chrissy for being a strong, independent woman and overall #goals), and I’m enjoying the seminar we are teaching, which even includes activities on privilege and respecting cultural differences. One student expresses some concerns about homesickness, but then she does a 180 and it’s all good.

Then, about a week and a half in, some shit goes down. This socially-awkward girl from California – we’ll call her Emily – starts saying stuff like, “Rappers and all those people do drugs and encourage violence. The only two genres of music I can’t stand are jazz and hip-hop.” At which point, I let her know where all the music she listens to comes from.

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Emily starts to get buddy-buddy with one of the students of color, all the while spewing comments like the above and some even more colorful ones like, “How come your hair looks like that? Are those braids real? Where did you get them?” The person on the receiving end of this dumbassery is a super chill, gender-nonconforming individual who draws and listens to music all the time, and is clearly adept at handling such wildly invasive comments. Imagine the coolness factor of Willow and Jaden Smith combined, but with fewer alien conspiracy theories and even better fashion sense.

Now, at this point, I decide to sit this awesome human down – let’s call them Syd – and remind them that it’s never their responsibility to educate ignorant white folks and that Black safety and comfort come before white feelings. Naturally, it’s awkward coming from a white person, especially from a white person in a position of perceived authority, but I’m working with what I got here. I offer to fill out an incident report regarding the comments, but Syd declines.

My co-leader and I then have a talk with Emily about her remarks, to no avail. We even unpacked the knapsack of white privilege together, for @#$!’s sake! [Link below] But you can’t dismantle the white supremacist heteropatriarchy in half an hour. Or, at least, that’s a tall order and one that I couldn’t fulfill.


Even though I realized that going into it, it was difficult for me to accept that I couldn’t help much. That is, even on a highly-structured, supervised academic program with teachers and chaperones present, I couldn’t make this one kid feel safe. It would be doing a disservice to the historical record if I didn’t admit my white feelings were hurt that I couldn’t protect this student from the effects of systemic racism. The absurdity doesn’t escape me. But, on the other hand, I wasn’t feeling guilty for the privilege I enjoyed as a white person that Syd did not; I was mad. Specifically, I was mad that not only a young person of color, but a young queer person of color was the target of such ignorant remarks – especially during a trip focused on accepting differences. I have taken pride in my identity as a member of the LGBTQ community and I have found strength in standing with others in solidarity, but in this instance my actions were as good as useless. That feeling of impotence gutted me.

When I spoke to one of the Language and Culture program leaders about the situation, who happened to be a queer woman of color, she reminded me that, of course, Syd would encounter bigotry and ignorance the rest of their life and, in her opinion, they needed to learn how to handle those attitudes now as opposed to later. While I understood where she was coming from, I couldn’t help but feel that if I could make this kid feel safe, valid, and comfortable for just this summer – or this week, – just an hour, even – that that would be something.

And I couldn’t.

For Syd’s final presentation, I let them know they could present to just Chrissy and me, instead of the whole group, since the project required a very personal reflection. They opted to present to the whole class anyway, sharing a hand-drawn picture of a mirror with a single eye peeking through, representing the process of introspection and reflection they went through during the program. Syd proceeded to address everything I hoped my students would glean from this experience: that service is a process of exchange, that the white savior complex is deeply problematic and to be avoided at all costs, that introspection is key, and that human connection is at the crux of anything we can deem “service.” Furthermore, they called out the casually racist comments they received during the program in front of the entire group, including Emily. I couldn’t have been prouder.


The outcome of this experience was (hopefully) not the creation of a self-indulgent white guilt fixation. Instead, it’s led me to further educate myself and to (hopefully) become a better ally. It should also be noted that Syd is not to be treated as a mere plot device in this story, enlightening our white protagonist through their very presence. [Although they did teach me more than I ever could have taught them in a million years – about resilience, courage, and the importance of self-expression. And I am indebted to them for that.] Moreover, there is no redemption arc in this story – just a constant process of learning and unlearning.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I would like to end this story on a positive note.

On our last day in the DR, I went around asking kids what their favorite activity was. One of the more reticent young men who initially refused to try anything outside his comfort zone leaned in and whispered to me, “Don’t tell anyone, but I really liked dancing.” This coming from the kid who sat out during the first twenty minutes of our dance lesson because “salsa is dumb.” This coming from the kid who was attached to his PlayStation console by an electronic umbilical cord only days before, disconnecting only to go to school and struggling to make friends. This same kid was suddenly having a blast getting weird on the dance floor.


So here’s to that kid for trying something new, for leaving me gobsmacked with joy at the sight of a gangly 15 year-old busting a move to some merengue music. Here’s to everyone else around the world stepping outside their comfort zones into the unknown.

*Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” only semi-ironically plays in the distance*




A Theory of Liberation [Minneapolis, Minnesota]

To say I’m grateful for this past weekend in Minneapolis would be a huge understatement. I’ve never connected with so many fascinating, inspiring, and passionate people in such a short period of time.

Steve, a linebacker-sized special-ed teacher of fifteen years, is returning to Ghana this summer for the third time. Kathryn is a brilliant social studies teacher in North Carolina who has traveled to Cuba a dozen times to visit her boyfriend. We bonded over our love of Spanish and our burgeoning baking skills. Daniel is a public health advocate who met his girlfriend in the Dominican Republic while studying abroad. His girlfriend, Jessica, is going back to the Dominican Republic this summer, while he is leading a group of students to Mexico. Chrissy – my co-leader – is a kind, insightful Spanish teacher from Massachusetts who takes her students to the DR every year.

We will all be leading groups of students to various countries over the summer with the intention of facilitating cultural exchange, improving foreign language skills, and learning through service. I was nervous that the organization through which we’re going abroad would endorse a facile approach to service learning, since that seems to be the most pervasive. But my fears were immediately assuaged. The presenter began by sharing students’ application essays with us, which included such statements as “I want to go to Africa because it has always been a dream of mine to travel to an underdeveloped country and serve their communities.” I was initially discouraged, but after our group discussion, I left feeling hopeful. Right off the bat, fellow summer abroad leaders were commending the student’s best intentions, recognizing their thoughtfulness and sincerity. However, we also saw opportunities for the student to evolve their ideas – especially with regard to the monolithic portrayal of a diverse continent and the Otherizing language of “serving their communities.”

This led to a fruitful discussion of volun-tourism, privilege, and paternalistic attitudes towards “Third World” countries.

I wanted to take a minute and share some take-away points from the incredible discussion we had. If you have any additions, comments, or qualms with these, please let me know. The aim of this post is to share knowledge and promote healthy dialogue.

  1. How does privilege impact the way in which you move through the world? In what way will your privilege affect how you interact with a different culture?

Here’s one method that can be used to illustrate privilege to your students (or friends or family, for that matter): Write a list of your: ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, class, ability, religion, orientation, and education. Star the ones you think work to your advantage in your daily life; underline the ones you think present obstacles; circle the ones you think about the most; highlight the one you get the most pride from; and put a question mark by the ones you want to learn more about. Ask questions like, “Which is the most visible in your home country?” and “Which will be most salient in the country you’re going to?” Discuss with your students and/or peers.

Another way to talk about privilege is to play “Privilege Basketball.” Place a recycling bin at the front of the classroom. Arrange the desks such that they are in rows. Everyone crumples up a sheet of paper and throws it into the bin. The ones in the back row will invariably complain that it’s unfair because they are a seated a greater distance away from the target. The students in the front row may not even realize how advantageous their position in the classroom is – since they are only 10 feet away from their goal. Moreover, the students in the front of the room likely won’t look behind them to notice all the other students in disadvantageous positions. Discuss the analogy with your students.

  1. What are some problems with the mainstream model of international aid/service programs?

In the interest of brevity, I would sum up my thoughts on the paternalistic model of service – so perfectly portrayed in the video above – as deeply rooted in racism and imperialism. What happens when you mix an ignorance of local culture, an attitude of superiority, and a lack of knowledge of community needs? The result can only be disastrous.

“Charity alleviates the symptoms caused by an unjust system but doesn’t challenge the root problems, and it often puts those providing the charity in a position of power OVER those who it ‘helps’ with benevolence or feeling good for helping out. Solidarity, on the other hand, implies that our struggles are intertwined.” 

– Treasure City Thrift

This may be slightly tangential, but during this conversation about international aid, service projects, and privilege, I was reminded of traveling through Peru and Bolivia. In Copacabana, a couple of missionaries, my friend and I hitched a ride with some orange pickers. We all loaded into the back of their truck, with more oranges rolling around than I’ve ever seen in my life. When we had arrived at our destination, we bought kilos and kilos of oranges for about a dollar, with dozens of yapas or extra oranges given as gifts. Without their kindness we would have been lost. I hope to God that culture of helping, a culture so far removed from my Western paradigm that values competition and ambition above all else, is around ten, twenty, and a hundred years from now.

However, since my travels, I’ve heard from the missionaries in Copacabana that their community is out of potable water and is facing serious environmental issues as result of climate change that are threatening their livelihood.

All this leads me to wonder if we could learn to appreciate and preserve other cultures, not just “serve” them, what “service” would look like?

Minneapolis, MN
  1. Who is serving whom?

This could be the topic of a lengthy blog post in and of itself, but I will provide an overview for now. When we talk of serving a community, who are we really serving? The crux of this issue lies in realizing the underpinning of activism, service, and aid should be a realization that our causes are interconnected. For that reason, we must beware of Otherizing members of those groups we are trying to help. Instead of an external “us” doling out aid to an amorphous “them,” let us recognize the importance of mutual learning. That is, from reciprocal relationships, both parties can come away from the interaction having gained something.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.

But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

— Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s  

We must acknowledge the interconnectedness of our struggles. That is, Black liberation is bound up with women’s liberation, which is bound up with queer liberation, which is bound up with Indigenous liberation, which is bound up with countless other liberations. These assertions are not metaphorical, they are based on historical facts. One example out of many is the leadership of transwomen of color such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the gay rights movement during the Stonewall era.

“Solidarity links us together across geography, economics, culture and power. It is more than a dressing wound; it allows all involved to be active participants,” writes scott crow, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective. Our NGO partners abroad and the folks with whom they work are already active participants in working to resolve the issues their communities face. What we need is for our students to become active participants in this conscious process of co-learning and co-liberation.

  1. Where do sustainable solutions to community issues come from?

All of this begs the question, “Where do sustainable solutions to community issues come from?” The answer to this query is quite simple. Sustainable solutions come from within the community itself. A sustained effort that accomplishes clear-cut goals is a long-term mission, not a three-week trip. The reality is students are not going to eradicate poverty in a month. By learning about the local culture and the community’s needs, by participating in the NGO or local organization, and by developing mutually-beneficial, reciprocal relationships with community members, something beautiful can happen, but only infrastructure and continued efforts by the community can produce long-term results.


  1. What impact can the students realistically make or have?

If all the above is true, then what’s the point? What impact can these students actually have during their summer trip abroad? Why bother at all?

To answer this, let me share a brief anecdote. When I studied abroad in Chile, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a girls’ orphanage in a rural community outside Valparaíso. We spent the time talking with the girls, helping with homework, and making some wicked cool string jewelry. Each time I went, I noticed this little girl would always shy away from me and refused to participate in any organized activities. One day, as I was getting ready to leave, she practically pushed me out the door. I assumed she didn’t like me, so I focused on interacting with the other girls.

On my last day, the director of the orphanage mentioned that the little girl had a speech impediment and generally avoided talking to anyone because she got made fun of a lot. But, the director said the little girl loved me and every time I visited she told the other girls her “sister” was coming. Apparently, she was deeply afraid of the dark and insisted I leave before the sunset because “bad things happen at night.” That’s why she had walked me to the door on multiple occasions at dusk, forcing me to leave. On my last day there, she presented me with a portrait she drew of me with a giant, pink heart around it.

I don’t know if I helped that little girl or her friends at the orphanage, although I hope I did. But I do know that even years later I look back and remember that girl’s face when I’m having a hard time. I have no idea how someone who was obviously dealing with severe trauma of her own could be so loving and selfless. In this instance, the little girl I was supposedly “serving” helped me much more than I helped her.

Minneapolis Street Art

Still, if service is to be effectively theorized and enacted, we must address the mechanism(s) by which it creates positive change.

Firstly, student participants of service trips can make a difference by recognizing their privilege and how it affects them. In the example of the girls’ orphanage, a student participant may reflect on the privilege they enjoy by having parents as well as the financial resources to get an education, whereas the girls at the orphanage had no money for basic school supplies, let alone a college savings account.

This brings to the foreground the importance of reflection in service. If students are given the opportunity to process the diverse experiences they’ve had, they can challenge their preconceived notions of a given culture, religion, or other group of people.

By changing a student’s mindset, sustainable solutions can be fostered both abroad and at home. As previously discussed, mutual learning and reciprocal relationships are at the heart of this model. Ideally, these connections would be sustained beyond the short-term service trip. This would, obviously allow for more significant, long-term exchanges and collaboration. At home, the student will be armed with a fresh perspective to acknowledge issues within their own community. Their concrete experience working with NGOs abroad will provide them with tangible skills to address these issues creatively and effectively. For example, after returning to the U.S. from Chile, I began to think critically about the foster care system here and opened my eyes to the youth homelessness epidemic in the area where I attended school. Given my experience at the orphanage in Chile, I was better prepared to involve myself in local organizations. I eventually chose to focus my efforts on LGBTQ youth facing homelessness, once I learned that over half of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ.

Ultimately, students who participate in service trips abroad make the most impact by reflecting on their own roles and positioning in society. Through completing service work in their host country, students are forced to examine their privilege (as well as marginalized identities), and to challenge their preconceived ideas of other countries and cultures. Students are encouraged to think systemically and uncover the root of inequities, not to simply put a Band-Aid on them to cover them up. Students are guided to understand that solidarity through mutual learning and reciprocal relationships is more effective than paternalism. Students gain practical, hands-on experience and insight from NGOs abroad so that they can take back home what they’ve learned and implement it in their own communities.

I was thrilled to learn that these crucial ideas are incorporated into the curriculum with which we’ll be working this summer abroad. That means we will be able to directly address these issues with the students. In fact, the students’ final project is to reflect on what they’ve learned from the NGO in their host country in order to address an issue facing the students’ local communities back home. This type of project is ideal because it truly reflects the principle of mutual learning.

One thing’s for sure: If we are going to distance ourselves from the “Waltz into this backwater country and fix everything with our superior ideas and culture” mentality that has been so prevalent historically, we need new models. Now that I’ve described some of my ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Here’s to continuously learning, growing, and supporting each other.