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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.