From savior to solidarity: An alternative for White girls and anyone else considering international service

While Pippa Biddle was building a library in Tanzania, I too was there studying East African History and Culture during a semester abroad. Biddle’s post that went viral last week shares a thoughtful reflection on the nature (read: problems) of relationships between volunteers and host communities within international service trips. She asks many of the questions I confronted during my time in Tanzania and following six years of travel and service. With our parallel journeys, I appreciate Biddle’s attention to the positionality of international volunteers in efforts toward sustainable development. Yet, I was left unsatisfied with a conclusion that suggests the solution lies in applying our skills-sets more strategically and potentially just staying home.

Contrary to her framing, Biddle’s critiques are not particular to race but span the many privileged identities that afford someone international service work. As Westerners who choose to travel outside of the “developed world”, we all need to sit with the implications of our presence and any volunteerism undertaken. It is true, though, that White folks especially have a learned tendency– not to mention histories– of dominance that must be combatted to respectfully engage across culture. Additionally, White women and girls are in the significant majority in terms of who participates in the sorts of trips in question. International volunteer and education organizations have a lot of work to do to improve access and inclusion– particularly for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, people of Color, and the LGBTQ community– for this inequity to be addressed.

From my experience in international service as both a participant and educator, the key to being mindful of my privilege is not to make sure that I am in a position to best serve according to my skills, but to move away from a paradigm of service entirely. The root of most problems with voluntourism, service-learning, and development itself is our orientation to the relationships involved. Without addressing how we understand and engage with global partners and friends– whether from home or abroad– we still cause the same detriment, dependency, and cultural degradation that Biddle outlines so clearly. At the crux of my international work is a challenge offered by an Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970s:

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This woman’s message is not ‘help me from your country where you can apply your best skills to my cause’. Instead, it screams: stop seeing me as your cause. Until we can connect to the humanity in one another rather than minimizing people into mere depositories of our benevolence, we should stay home. But not because we can best serve from there. Because we do harm when we continue to perpetuate the racist, ethnocentric, and hegemonic messages of colonial rule that still– albeit tacitly– prevail in the industrial complex of development-aid. It is when we stop trying to help and to save that we are in a position to connect, to learn, and to grow.

International immersion with this ethos is revolutionary in the counter-narrative that it provides. In 2008, I arrived in Tanzania with neocolonial notions of “poor Africa”. Yet, my time in the rural south of the country awakened me to the strengths and beauty of a people different than my own. I became aware of the Western bias implicit in my then-constructs of poverty and notions around development’s aims. I came to know and love a culture and a handful of individuals, and was forever changed by the experience.

Was this benefit one-directional, making my time abroad exploitive to local people and an appropriation of culture? I do not believe so. When the message was no longer “I am here to help” but instead, “I value you– I want to know you, learn from you, journey alongside you,” the exchange shifted from a model of welfare to one that honors local capacity. Defying narratives of dependency and need, there was  space for the community to see themselves as knowledge holders and creators. Both local hosts and volunteers benefit from this pursuit, one that celebrates diversity, culture, and relational living instead of perpetuating the proliferation of Western values.

From a humble disposition of co-learning, we transcend hierarchies of racial, ethnic, and national identity. It is through our experience of communities like this that our aspirations of what humanity is capable of are formed. We ignite our social imaginations while gaining a sense of agency and network of support to create change. Having glimpsed moments of social emancipation, all parties begin to see the way that our liberation is truly bound.

My description of such a process is grounded in my experience of programs that do this well. In January 2012, I traveled to El Salvador through a Jesuit immersion program. For twelve days, we met with Salvadorans to hear their stories and learn about their inspirational work in the face of environmental and human rights controversies. With solidarity as our aim and liberation our vision, we did not participate in any service except to listen and to acknowledge our deep connectivity. We affirmed local efforts and voice while interrogating the way our politics, lifestyles, and choices impact a peoples in the neighboring Americas.

In the world in which we live, global connectivity is inevitable whether voluntourism and international education continues or abates. El Salvador’s fate is intertwined with my own whether or not I am aware of these influences. Discovering and fostering our interconnectedness becomes imperative to creating the change that the world so desperately needs. I believe that international programs are one such way to do this. The crucial questions become ones of structure and approach; we need to ask how these programs are happening and what purposes they serve.

Today, I accompany students abroad on a global gap year. While traveling, students study international development and change-making through homestays, project work, and educational seminars. While our model includes international service, we encourage students to consider the problems and limitations of this approach, developing their critical thinking and social consciousness through reflection and inquiry. This type of experience, of course, does not require leaving the boundaries of one’s home country. Another valuable question that students consider is how we are being attentive to domestic issues and communities in equal measure.

My hope is that my students and the Biddles of the world don’t shy away from questions of positionality and purpose in the programs in which they participate. I hope too that they don’t shy away from deep, personal, and meaningful relationships with folks around the world– relationships that might even include intentional travel and work.

Author’s Note: There are many helpful questions to ask in choosing an international service program, outlined well by Learning Service’s recent video series. Additionally, there are questions that should be undertaken institutionally in terms of access, inclusion, and sensitivity when designing and running international programs. Though they are not covered in this post, those questions are a crucial part of the conversation.