As the countdown to Spring Break gets smaller and smaller, I cannot wait to simply go home and hibernate for several days straight, eat non-dining hall food and continue my rampage of Netflix’s “watch instantly library”. However, I’m also aware of the fact that a large majority of my friends and peers are preparing for a different experience — a week-long service trip.
Service trips have become somewhat of a trend at the University, whether one participates through Alternative Spring Break, Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, the Ginsberg Center, or your own student organization. Some of these trips are domestic, as close as Detroit, others international, going to various countries in South America. I have heard incredible testimonials of those who choose to attend a service-based spring break of some sort, claiming it as a sort of “life-changing” experience, but I am always left wondering, how much can you really affect a community in one week? What’s the point?
Granted, this may just be some of my cynicism shining through. I don’t want to say that these trips are all completely worthless; in fact, I almost did an ASB this year myself. I also know that many of these organizations, particularly ASB, are becoming aware of the “savior” mentality and talking to students so they do not feel that they are saving a community. But, I still worry that not all individual participants understand one’s role as an outsider entering a community, especially when it is only for a week.
First of all, it’s very unlikely that a person can understand the day-to-day struggles a community faces. Sure, you’ll see it for a week, but the largest part of privilege is being able to step in and out of feeling powerless, while others live it every day of their lives. Realizing this imbalance in power and experience is the first step to being respectful during a service trip.
Next is realizing that, ideally, it will be a learning experience for both communities, but especially yourself. The community you are entering may gain something from you, but the largest gain will be that they are willing to let you enter their home and space. Accepting this offer with humility is key, because in no way does this community need to allow you in.
The most important part is engaging in a two-way dialogue with the community at hand, rather than simply wanting to “help.” Helping implies that you are above someone else and have something for him or her to gain or benefit from. In reality, the community will probably not change much from your work in a week, but your perspective will be forever changed by even a small insight into a certain injustice or inequality.
One of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Paulo Freire, writes in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”
Freire continually discusses the importance in recognizing one’s privilege and accepting that one is part of the oppressing group, even if you are not necessarily participating in the oppression. Recognizing the ability of the oppressed is equally important; as Freire says, forcing the oppressed to continue to extend their “trembling hands” continues the cycle of “I can help you and you should accept my help.” Trusting the oppressed to advocate for themselves is critical, because it shows that the oppressors understand the full humanity and believe the oppressed have just as much power.
At this point, I am reminded of the wonderful words of Indigenous Australian activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
As you rebuild houses, work in medical clinics, volunteer with nonprofits, make meals in homeless shelters, or play with orphaned children, remember this: however important you feel, the role that the community you’re visiting will be more significant. Our liberation depends on them and their power to fight against the oppression and helping hands that have been imposed upon them.
Harleen Kaur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.