Sunday, June 29, 2014

Contrary to Popular Belief - Global Volunteerism

This week I came across a few articles that really hit a nerve with me. They are talking about Americans volunteering in different countries, and they are talking about it negatively.


"On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about 'suffering Africa.'” found here



found here


These articles that are being written about the problems with Americans volunteering are really just dumb (I have no desire to make it sound prettier than that). They are really just attacking the principle of volunteering as a whole. Who cares if people who go and volunteer are more privileged than the people they are serving. They are using their privilege for good. Which is what the world needs, people who take the abundance from their lives and share it with people who need it.



I don't care much about the opinions of the people who wrote these articles.
But I do care about the people who are gonna read the articles and proceed to judge me and anyone else who goes on international volunteer trips.

Thinking about this today I got a knot in my stomach. I am so upset that there is a possibility that people will see my pictures from my time in the Dominican, and judge me, my trip, and where my heart is.

I'm not sure how many people go on these trips, and come back with the kind of experience that this girl had. I honestly am baffled that she went on this trip multiple times after feeling the way she did after the first time.

The best week of my year for the past 3 years has been the week that I spend in the Dominican Republic on a missions trip with my church.

This girl went on her international volunteer trip three times. And what I got from reading the article, she did not feel like she did anything good for the people she was serving.

A lot depends on the organization 

There are a lot of different organizations that you can go through for international volunteering. And they all are very different. Have different missions, different values, different impacts.


My church has partnered with Food for the Hungry Through them, we have formed a ten year relationship with the community of Sierra Prieta. Both sides come bearing privilege and poverty. We do not come in and provide a quick fix for these peoples needs. We provide them with knowledge to help them to become self sufficient.

Before we go on the trip we are educated about different kinds of poverty. As privileged Americans, we tend to assume that we don't have poverty in our lives. And after being educated about it, we tend to assume we have the better kind of poverty. We get to have all of our wealth and possessions and privilege, while these people live in run down houses in the middle of a jungle, with no running water and very little electricity, and even less possessions.We are told that our poverty is a relational poverty.That we are lacking in how much we value time with others, and how little we really get to know our neighbors and people in our community.

And with that some people are fine. Some people would choose to have possessions instead of relationships everyday for the rest of their lives.

The privilege we bring with us comes in the form of possessions. Toys for the kids to play with, cameras to take pictures, clothes that we don't intend to keep, and shoes that are in tact.
Their privilege comes in the form of their entire life. These children are the happiest kids I have ever seen in my life, and they have found that happiness without being spoiled with shiny new toys. I have been offered toys by some of the children I have formed close bonds with. These kids have maybe 5-10 toys. And they tried to give me one of them. The community makes sure that everyone is provided for. Nobody really has extra food or money, but somehow they find ways to give to the poorest in the village to ensure that nobody is too hungry. They make sure that everybody has a change of clothes. The older kids look out for the younger kids, even if they aren't related.

Anyone can have a possession, it doesn't take special skills like kindness, patience, and selflessness. But what theses children have, very few Americans will ever be privileged enough to have.

Money can buy our privilege, but it will never be able to purchase the privilege that the people of Sierra Prieta have.

And we say that they are the ones living a life in poverty.

Our privilege is much more temporary than theirs and our poverty is far more permanent.
We are able to send teams into their villages and teach them ways out of their poverty, but nobody is coming to us to get us out of ours. I don't think that there is anyone who could come into America and successfully open our eyes to our poverty.
These trips exist exactly for that reason. Because Americans would never just listen to others telling us that we are living a life in poverty. So they kinda trick us into going on this trip thinking that we are going to change these peoples lives, to bring them something great because we have been blessed with the privilege of possessions and money.

But we find that this isn't the case at all.
We do not end up being the heroes of the story of a suffering nation. We are the ones being saved, we are the suffering nation.

Money cannot buy the life changing experience that comes from spending time volunteering internationally. And this girls story is proof of that. For a trip like that to be meaningful, you must be humble enough to recognize how much poverty is truly in your own life and how much wealth these forigen people have to offer.

There is nothing wrong with taking pictures

I bring my camera every year and I, myself, take very few pictures with it. I bring it for the kids. The camera was a present for graduating 8th grade, so I have had it for quite some time. I don't care much about the camera, it isn't worth anything to me. But what I find invaluable is the pictures that the children take on my camera every year.

Last year someone on our trip brought a portable photo printer and we decided to put that to use. We made sure that every family in the village got a family picture taken.

Now where we come from thats not a big deal, we can take pictures on our phones at any given moment. We have been raised with pictures put into frames and on display around our homes for us to walk past without giving them a second thought. To us, the pictures are minuscule.

But for the people in Sierra Prieta, this is something they will cherish forever.
They do not have any family portraits. The family picture that we took, may be the only one they ever get taken. Ever. They put on their nicest clothes for this occasion, and made sure the children stayed clean until it was time for the photo. Which isn't an easy task.

Every year we bring prints of the photos we took the year before. And we pass them out to all of the children. These are prized possessions.

Last year we had the privilege of having a large screen and a projector set up to show the kids Finding Nemo, but before we did that we showed them the video we made of our trip from the year before. The kids asked us to play it again because it was so exciting for them to see themselves on the screen. It was a magical moment.

Photos are a necessary part of the trip. They remind us of our experience and how much we learned about the poverty that we have in our lives.


I will not stand for people judging my experience based off of people who clearly don't get what these trips are all about. The Dominican is my happy place. I love the children that I have bonded with more than I ever imagined was possible. I dread the day that our ten year relationship comes to an end, and I'm almost certain that I will have to be forcefully removed from the village on that day. My time there is never enough and when I say take me back, I really mean it.







1 comment :

  1. I respect the views you have presented in this article, but I must argue that the ideas presented in Lauren's "Instagramming Africa" article and Teju Cole's tweets are not dumb, and in fact, they present an alternate but very real aspect of short-term mission known as "voluntourism".

    I have taken a brief look at "Food for the Hungry", and though I was not able to get a clear idea of what it is that the charity does, it does seem to advocate for true volunteering rather than promoting a "voluntourism" approach. In that sense I applaud you for the work you did while you were on your trip.

    To say that the idea of voluntourism is "dumb" is quite naive in my opinion, and gives credit to certain "charities" where I don't believe credit is due.

    There are far too many not-for-profits who glamorize the experience of short term mission, through photos of "hard-working volunteers" with needy children that are so very happy to be in pictures. I'm sure the kids were genuinely happy; I'm sure the volunteers also were. But i believe pictures like those miss the entire point of volunteer mission and instead turn the trips into vacations of some sort. Going into a short-term mission with this mindset does happen, and is probably a factor in the nature of Teju Cole's tweets. It IS infuriating to know that people enter countries for their own self-gain, to elevate themselves, rather than going to serve. BOTH situations are possible and BOTH do occur.

    One could argue that Lauren and Teju's comments are extreme (I do not believe so), but to deny them is to deny the existence of white privilege and Western privilege in general. And that would be simply ignorant.

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