Today’s post is from Caitlin Brooking, who recently attended a “Service in Mississippi” summit hosted by the ISJL, and then graciously offered to share her thoughts on community engagement.
When we view ourselves as a global community, it is impossible for us to stand by while our neighbors are hurting. Here in Mississippi, we seem to often be the ones in the spotlight as “hurting” – afflicted by persistent poverty, health disparities, and occasional natural disasters.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of Mississippi almost 10 years ago, the images of decimated neighborhoods and people in pain lingered in the minds of many, and over the next few years, thousands headed South to assist with relief efforts, for days, months, even years.
For communities already dizzy with the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding individual lives as well as public institutions, the influx came with conflicting emotions. As the recovery dragged on, many long-term volunteer groups began struggling with the question, “How can we authentically include and respect the community in efforts that alter the appearance and composition of their community?”
The overwhelming majority of those who came from elsewhere to rebuild the Gulf Coast came out of compassion, with good intentions to use their own skills and resources to help residents get back on their feet. Many were socially conscious recent college graduates; many had been involved with community service efforts for years, were familiar with social justice tactics and were sensitive to and protective of residents’ privacy and self-agency. They made efforts to include community members in choices about housing design and community projects. Most were passionate and dedicated to their work, and wanted to leave the Gulf Coast “better than they found it.”
But for residents, long-held ideas about their community – what it looked like, who lived there, where their daily lives took place— gradually began to slip away. Some despaired they would never be able to truly return home, but felt unable to express these feelings without seeming ungrateful. Of course the efforts of volunteers were desperately needed, and many would be without homes at all without it. But while they were housed, they still remained “home”-less.
How can volunteers bring their best resources to address disparities in underserved communities, while respecting the community’s own vision? The answer seems simple: ask residents, listen to their responses, and engage them actively in project planning. However, projects can be complicated. Volunteers bring donor-specified outcomes, resource limitations, and specific skills that can’t always be well harnessed due to timing and context. Within communities, there can be political and ideological divides, competing visions for improvement, and in a disaster, there is often a sense of urgency as well as a heightened sense of vulnerability and loss of control that can fuel reluctance to let outside visions steer the projects. All communities want to feel empowered to create a place they can see themselves thriving in, not only a place to live but a platform for improving their own lives. Aligning volunteer group goals with community-led efforts from the project’s inception is crucial in managing expectations, ensuring sustainability for projects, and funneling volunteer energies and resources toward creating lasting change in the community.
Volunteer groups can work to embed themselves within the communities they serve, recognizing their role as outsiders and seeking out community-defined leaders to inform projects and guide planning processes. Planning processes should also include crafting a sustainability plan for projects, identifying specific local groups or residents who will steward projects after volunteer groups leave. Whether it is a one-day mural project or community garden, or a summer-long summer camp, projects should reflect the community’s priorities and values, and engage local residents in planning and implementation as leaders, volunteers and donors.
When volunteers travel to a community, the possibilities for idea exchange, innovation, and life-changing travel experiences are abundant. Intentional incorporation of community members in every stage of the project, from planning, investment, implementation and future preservation and usage of project results, can transform a project from a one-time experience for volunteers to a meaningful turning point in the ongoing development of a strong, vibrant community.
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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For many, the end of Daylight Savings Time is associated with an extra luxurious hour of sleep. Since modern electricity mitigates our lighting experience throughout the day, I don’t really consider the fact that it also means that it will get dark earlier in the evenings and lighter earlier in the mornings. I can switch on a light and read while it is dark outside, and I can close my blinds in the morning if I want my apartment to get darker.
But this year, I’m wondering what it would be like if at sunset, I could no longer read, no longer maneuver around my crowded apartment without candlelight, and I could no longer see someone while I am talking to them.
This is in large part because I listened to this TEDx Zurich Talk still in rough form given by Anya Cherneff, Executive Director of Empower Generation. (Anya’s talk is about 52 minutes into the unedited clip.) I met Anya through her father, Peter Cherneff, the founding board chair of Footsteps. As Executive Director of Footsteps, I was often inspired by the Cherneff family’s commitment to social justice. Most inspiring to me was that when it comes to social justice, the Cherneffs’ vision is global, transcending their own personal experiences.
Personal experience influences how we see the world. Years ago, I co-founded and championed Footsteps, an organization that supports the choices of people who want to enter or explore the world outside of the insular ultra-orthodox communities in which they were raised. Like many founders, I was inspired by my personal experiences and the challenges I faced and witnessed around this life transition. Peter did not share the same background, but his support of Footsteps members has been unwavering. For some, working with people from such a drastically different background would have been a Herculean task. But not for Peter, who with compassion and curiosity became one of the most effective drivers of change on behalf of the Footsteps community.
It should not—and did not—surprise me then when Anya and her husband Bennett Cohen founded Empower Generation in 2011. Empower Generation is an organization that seeds and supports women-led enterprises addressing energy poverty. The vision of this organization is “a world where women living at the base of the economic pyramid are empowered to lead their communities out of energy poverty, where human dignity for all and environmental sustainability are universal values.”
Empower Generation has been focusing its efforts on Nepal which, as they explain, “is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half the population living below the poverty line and more than half living without access to reliable power.” As she explained in her TEDx Zurich talk, that means that families need to choose between using the limited light they have to do homework or cook.
Nepal is far from where Anya grew up here in the U.S. but, like her dad, she has forged friendships and alliances that have made citizens in Nepal who are impacted by Empower Generation truly valued, engaged, full partners in this endeavor.
Empower Generation is an example of what we can do when we allow ourselves to be moved and when we value the ideas and wisdom that are rooted in experiences outside of our own. It is also the outcome of reflecting on resources we take for granted. Light is one such resource, and as we prepare to lose an hour of light in the evenings, let’s think about those who live without access to reliable power. In a country where power is abundant, let’s think about the impact our energy usage has on our world at large. Instead of just gaining an hour of sleep, let’s also gain some insight.
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