On Tuesday night, The Quito Project held a workshop titled “Breaking the Barriers of Voluntourism: Engaging in Sustainable Cultural Humility Practices,” discussing the impact of voluntourism: a combination of tourism and volunteer work abroad. The workshop touched on the challenges of international volunteer work, which, according to the organizers, can sometimes be unsustainable and harm the communities it aims to help.

LSA senior Nora Kuo, Quito Project co-President, introduced the event by explaining how volunteers can unintentionally harm the communities with which they work.  

“We want to learn how to volunteer abroad without coming in with harmful behavior that is disrespecting the community,” Kuo said.

Kuo said The Quito Project, a student organization based in Quito, Ecuador that works to minimize the achievement gap for primary school students in low-income areas, started holding these workshops when they noticed their Michigan tutors weren’t achieving what they had hoped.

“There was a disconnect between what we wanted to do and what was happening,” she said.

Danyelle J. Reynolds, the assistant director for student learning and leadership for the Ginsberg Center, led the workshop portion of the event, beginning by asking the audience if they had any preconceived definitions of voluntourism.

The responses of the audience were mixed, leading into Reynolds’ next point. She explained though the word often holds negative connotations, she said she believes voluntourism is not inherently good or bad.

“There isn’t a consensus for what voluntourism means,” Reynolds said. “It’s all about what you’re actually doing.”

She noted one of the obstacles for volunteers was not knowing why they wanted to volunteer. This often impacts how volunteers eventually approach their work, Reynolds said.

“Thinking about your overall purpose is really important because the ‘why’ shapes the ‘how,’” Reynolds said. “What work are you doing and why are you doing it?”

Another barrier Reynolds mentioned was how international volunteers might have a difficult time understanding the context of a problem they are trying to solve. Her advice to volunteers was to research the history of a problem before arriving.

“We have to understand issues and know the root causes of the issues,” Reynolds said. “If we don’t know the root causes, our work is not going to be effective or sustainable for the community we’re working in.”

The third barrier Reynolds discussed was about the importance with which volunteers consider their identities and roles. She prompted the audience to think about how their identities would affect their experience in the specific countries where they are volunteering.

“Identities matter,” Reynolds said. “Our social identities affect how we shape the world around us. Whatever you are doing, if you are working with people, you are in a social environment.”

She also discouraged the audience from ignoring opportunities for mutual learning and benefit. Reynolds said  in many cases, those going abroad to volunteer will benefit more than the communities they’re visiting. To reduce this disparity, she suggested volunteers think about what they can learn from community members and to try to understand all parts of a culture.

“Ask people, ‘What do you want and what do you need — what are your priorities?’” Reynolds said. “If you’re going to a place just to help people, you’re not seeing the rich, lively, positive pieces of the culture that are there as well.”

To conclude her presentation, Reynolds discussed volunteers’ problematic use of social media. As an example, she brought up the commonly posted photos of University of Michigan students in a foreign country with a maize and blue block ‘M’ flag, and how most people have not considered the implications of the photo.

“What does it mean for people to take a flag and put it up in a space that has been previously conquered by an invading country?” Reynolds said. “When people from the United States go to those countries and take a big flag with them and post it up, what does that mean to the people you’re working with?”  

Reynolds offered parting advice for those volunteering abroad on how to make the largest impact and how to utilize social media.

“Make a plan before you go abroad,” Reynolds said. “And when posting on social media, use captions to tell stories, add names and add what you learned from those people.”

LSA sophomore Margo Dickstein, who plans to volunteer in Israel this summer, told The Daily after the event that she hopes to gain a better understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, echoing Reynold's point of understanding the context and history of one's study-abroad country.

“I’m a double major in poli-sci and international studies, so it’s good to gain international experience,” she said. “But I also think it’s important when you’re studying a conflict to not just look at it from the outside, but to see it from the inside. I’m excited to see it from a human perspective, not just a bunch of numbers.”

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