I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.
There’s one page I follow obsessively on Facebook: Humans of New York.
Brandon, the photographer and author behind HONY, approaches total strangers, takes their photos, and asks questions that are often incredibly personal. He doesn’t wait for strangers to approach and share their stories, instead he openly investigates and uplifts voices otherwise overlooked.
I’ve been following HONY quite some time now, and recently this page has been sharing stories far away from New York City. In partnership with the United Nations, supported by the Secretary General’s MDG Advocacy Group, Brandon is currently traveling to 10 countries over the course of 50 days, to visit faraway places and listen to as many people as possible.
When I opened the page today, there were several postings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each photo came with a unique story, informed by personal experience.
A question was on my mind that Malkie Schwartz posed to me when I first came to the ISJL, to begin my work as a Community Engagement Fellow: “What do you think of when you think about Africa?”
Most of the images I associated with Africa throughout my childhood had to do with Aid for Africa campaigns. Young children, malnourished, dusty, reaching out for food and help. This made me think. What if these were the only images you ever saw of Africa? What would you think of someone who came from there?
It’s difficult, and I think wrong, to see an entire continent as one-dimensional: needy, desolate, ravaged by AIDS.
This particular image from the HONY/United Nations project struck me. There’s a young man, standing in the middle of street, next to a poster of some young boys sitting on the ground, asking for food. In the caption that accompanies this photograph, the man says he does not like pictures like the one next to him. The man, credited as a Human of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, says: “It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this… This gives us no dignity.”
He’s right, and why can’t we elevate voices like his?
There’s a great campaign by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund that asks similar questions. They depict Norway as a cold, sad country that can’t afford to keep its citizens warm. They call for Africans to lend a hand and send radiators to Norway, to save the poor people that can’t help themselves. They ask, what if campaigns like this were the only thing you knew about Norway? What would you think of the country? Malkie wrote about this campaign awhile back, and it’s pretty eye-opening.
So here is my social justice challenge for the day, for all of us: go read a story about a company in Africa, learn about a local initiative. Think of positive adjectives to accompany the many negative ones we see in aid campaigns. Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes. We don’t like it when we experience it – we should actively work to avoid doing it to others.
It’s something I’ll be bearing in mind when it comes to Africa, and to my community engagement work here in the South, as well. Stereotypes are limiting. Stories open doors.