Oh…that Voluntourism!

The last month has been full of traveling between Lima and the mountains (yes, even higher up than Anda!). While the first and final weeks were spent in Lima finishing (you read it…I finished it!) visa paperwork, the two weeks in between were spent in Ocongate, a small town southeast of Andahuaylillas. Here, Quechua seems to be the primary language and Alpaca ribs are on the comodor menu often. My fellow JV and I were charged with the task of teaching 2 English classes. My group was the basic level, consisting of 20 kids (17 boys….) ages 8-14. To give you a better idea of what my class looked like, water guns were a regular, English was often the back burner, Quechua conversations were often, and my hair stuck straight up. While I can’t say if the kids actually learned much, I can say we had a good time. They even went on what was their first retreat for many of them.

During my time in Ocongate, I read an article that was circulating around Facebook on Voluntourism (click on the link to visit). Several of my friends had posted it with a few comments in agreement with the message. As an international volunteer who owns a shirt saying ‘Serve Local,’ I have my opinions on it and am eager to continue the conversation posed by the author.

The author captures an important, fundamental idea in volunteering/voluntourism: If initial desires are to ‘help’ those who reside in the ‘3rd world,’ or live in ‘developing nations,’ the intent is forthrightly problematic. Our skills that appear impressive or desirable on a resume in the USA might not always be desired abroad, given language, cultural differences, or varying levels of access. For example, global health access is lacking in a dire way. Yet, a fully educated North American nurse who goes to northern, rural Guatemala is rendered nearly powerless without any previous cultural understanding of the way Mayan women view their bodies.

If we choose to enter a marginalized population to ‘help,’ we foster a power dynamic that implies the original way of the populations needs fixing. This becomes fundamentally problematic in terms of perpetuating cycles of power and privilege that prohibit eventual fairness in so-called ‘equality.’ The author recognizes this, stating: “Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is … detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.” Patterns of poverty and discrimination will continue to manifest and become exponentially worse if current forms of volunteering, aid, or international charity are left unchecked (fortunately, I’ll limit my scope to volunteering tonight).

What the author fails to do is dive into the depths of this complex, yet important conversation around how volunteerism can provide a window of opportunity to develop in understanding of populations too often deemed as ‘the other.’ Through accompaniment, education, and questioning, volunteerism can be transformed from a quantitative experience of ‘how many photos were taken,’ or ‘how many buildings were raised,’ or ‘how many people told me how nice I was,’ into a qualitative experience measured through the way our hearts and hands were opened. This is obtained by gathering knowledge prior to the volunteer experience, and a metaphorical, though sometimes literal, taking off of the shoes before entering into a community. Formation and an open heart are of key importance to entering into a volunteer experience.

Some of my fondest memories in the story of my own personal growth are held in the awkward, yet necessary situations of trying to respectfully understand ways of life different from my own…based on a difference of access or social location. These are the moments where race, weatlh, privilege, countries of birth, and languages are not forgotten, but put aside to witness one another in our common humanity. It’s the conversations where I have entered into a community, taken off my shoes, and opened my hands to recieve. I have nothing to give other than accompaniment and the curiousity to understand, but I have everything to recieve.

Many agree that the idea of ‘helping’ does little for social change in the grand scheme of things.The late, great Dean Brackley SJ quotes which explains “In the [United] States, the great challenge for Christianity is now downward mobility, if that makes sense. The challenge is not to help the poor to join the rich; it’s to help the rich join the poor. That’s where our salvation is.” While salvation can be, at times, a loaded religious word around fire and brimstone, if we are challenging ourselves to uproot social inequality, it works out quite well. My favorite, Gustavo Gutiérrez, compliments this idea with the language of Liberation Theology: “If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.” These words are a call to action to learn, dialogue, and be willing to change as a result of cross-cultural interaction.

Since I can only speak from my experience, I want to disect my current volunteer position. I will be a high school teacher in a Fe y Alegría in Peru. While my subjects that I will teach are still to be determined, they will be either in English or Theology. I’m fluent in English and have a degree in Theology, yet my teaching experience has been racked up only in the last few weeks in rural Peru (basically, next to nothing). I have grappled with the pros and cons, and, as nearly anyone who is close to me can attest, I nearly turned down this opportunity to pursue a job or other possibilities in Seattle, where I am more familiar with just about everything. Yet, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I have reframed what teaching will be in light of conversations with my bosses, my program, my community, a Paulo Friere book, and myself. Teaching will not be a formal endeavor, but one that seeks to listen, observe, and accompany.  It will be a hands-on, ears open, messy experience that will seek to build capacity rather than a construction.

My final reflection that I’ll offer now is to quote Mary Oliver: 

“Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”

At the end of a volunteer time period, much changes. The aesthetic and environments change, but most importantly, our hearts and minds are opened and broadened. Ignatian pedagogy deems this as a time for reflection and furthered action. From reflection of the experience and noticing what was important, what was different, and why was it like this, we arrive at the ‘what now’ stage.  We are charged with using our privilege and access to conversations that influence others–whether this be via government policy, consumerism, or disrupting cultural norms–to advocate for change. Our volunteerism takes on a different appearance, but rather, we must ‘tell about it.’ Fortunately, this is not confined to only going abroad or only in your own backyard.

No one says it better than Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist and artist in Australia, who asserts, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation, our salvation, our hope for the future depends on crossing cultures, borders (by neighborhood or state or country), and experiences by opening ourselves to the rawness of humanity.