Category Archives: Service-Learning

The Global Experience

Whiny 18 year olds keep asking us, “What do you even do all day?!” (Just kidding on the whiney, they’re actually very thoughtful and a bunch of fun, and so far not getting into too much trouble.)  Well, every Thursday I TA a section of the Global Experience course, taught by Staci, an Asst Site Director.  Edlira, part of the ACT staff, and an adorable Albanian, is also a TA.  So far this means I send mass-emails and recieve questions every time I leave my room, and for good measure there are emails waiting when I’m back in my room. I also was up at 7am Tuesday, excorting students to their service-learning placement.  More on how that went later.

TAing this class is one of the aspects of the job I was most excited about.  Ideally, I want to someday run/work for study abroad that fuses together cultural/political awareness with concrete social justice action.  To that end, I’m really enjoying the experiential (hands-on, discussion-based) pedagogy of the Global Experience class, as well as the culture, justice, and critical-thinking subject matter.

This week’s assignment was a blog post on the role of education in creating citizens, the possibility of the American Dream, how discrimination and prejudice inhibit societal change, and which community issues are of greatest concern.

Personally, I believe education is the way to create citizens.  Of course if you’re reading this blog, you will notice that I consider all kinds of things to constitute my education: classes, free lectures, film festivals, museum visits, outside reading, embassy visits, television shows (yes, I’m serious), live performance, travel, community service, and interacting with new people.  I don’t understand the concept of compartmentalizing our lives so that ‘education’ is just during lectures and ‘work’ is a 9 to 5 chore and ‘happiness’ is on nights, weekends, and after we retire.  If you don’t enjoy your education, then learn about something else, or find a kind of teacher, whether it be a singer or a friend or a librarian.  If you don’t like your work, then find a way to be doing something else.

When it comes to the American Dream, I think we need to seriously edit the concept.  I’ve discussed before how I think that meritocracy is a myth, a bedtime story that capitalists tell their children so they can sleep at night and feel a little less ruthless about their days.  I don’t think we are all on equal footing, or that hard work is enough for everyone.  If you don’t believe me, look into the growing gap in wealth in this country, compare our working hours a year to other prosperous nations (eg France, UK), and check out how much discrimination takes place on the perceived ethnicity of names (that’s even before you get to skin color or institutionalized education discrimination.)  I think anyone who believes we all get a fair shake is either not paying attention or has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  And I stand by that, even as my fellow staff members preach stories of successful immigrants and the allegedly bountiful opportunities for homeless people in the States.

Discrimination and prejudice are at the heart of all obstacles to societal change.  I’m currently reading Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they talk about the pattern of dehumanizing the other in order to be comfortable mistreating them.  This was the case with American Indians (Savages!), Africans who were brought over as slaves, and is now true about the millions of “low class” women around the world who are bought and sold as sex slaves.  If we truly believe that all people are equal and worthy, there is no reason to act unfairly.  A large part of the problem in this country is that we have skewed beliefs about our economic statuses.  Collectively, Americans believe that the rich people in this country are significantly less wealthy than they actually are, and at the same time hold the false belief that the poorest in this country have more capital than they truly do.  If we were honest and accurate about what is really occurring in this country, whether it’s discrimination in the education and hiring systems or the true wealth disparity, it would be much harder to stand in the way of welfare programs and effective methods of change.

As far as the greatest concern?  For me I have decided to focus my energies on the Girl Effect as well as experiential education abroad.  To me, it’s a mixture of efficacy, efficiency and my own interests/talents.  If I focus on something important that I’m not good at, I’ll be fairly useless.  Working with women, especially young girls (9-13) is highly eficient when it comes to producing sea change, since women have a greater effect on their community than men.  For example, in matriarchal societies, equality is high, whereas in patriarchal societies there is a high level of gender inequality.  Another example is that when women are educated, overall health of the family increases, the population decreases (since empowered women produce fewer children, but the same is not true of men), and there is less stress on the entire system.  While men are more likely to spend their additional income on booze, drugs, women and unnecessary goods, women are far more likely to invest the money in their children’s health and education, as well as into improving their overall status (eg a better house or expanding their business.)

As you can tell, I’m really jazzed about this class and can’t wait to hear from the students on Thursday and read all their blogs.  Enjoy your Tuesday!

Mata los Indios

This cement housing is typical of bateyes, as it was once used as barracks for sugar cane workers. Now, whole families live in them. This blue section is three separate homes, with a third one not pictured.
This is a playground.
The sweet, quiet girl who came and hung out with me while I was super boring and wrote. She sat on my lap and snuggled up with me for the afternoon. She barely even let me get this picture.
Town Leadership, and a Sister Island Project rep on the left
Ubiquitous trash on the rocky road to Mata
Ninos playing basketball

Mata Revisited

This week I will be returning to Mata los Indios, the small batey in Monte Plata where I spent spring break, assessing poverty, digging a foundation and attempting to bring micro-finance to a poor, rural population.  As of when you read this, I will be on my way back to that place of no internet, bucket showers and crushed frogs.  I had been itching to get back since getting here, but now it seems like it is so suddenly upon me.

Recently, we got the green light from Esperanza to continue moving toward micro-credit in Mata los Indios and the surrounding area.  I know we had been told before that it was a good chance we would have success, but being back in this country and not knowing the verdict had me itching.  Going into bateyes again with so many failed borrowers had me feeling a little hopeless, a little worried that nothing could ever change in Mata, even if we helped provide he intervention from Esperanza.

Now that we’re returning to Mata, I feel like we all have a firmer grasp of what we’re doing, why and how.  We’ve seen people both better and worse off than those in Mata, those who have been able to succeed in improving from that standing and those who have failed.  Our survey-creation, -delivery and -evaluation skils have improved with experience.

Right now I’m just looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and getting to work on my project’s business plan, so that maybe I can accelerate some assistance and learn a little in the process.

Starving Children

I hate the argument that you cannot let a child starve, that it is some sort of moral imperative.

It is a logical fallacy.

If you really believed that it is impossible, immoral and unacceptable to turn your back on a starving child, you wouldn’t be doing it constantly, millions of times over.  You would be selling all your stuff and feeding the millions of starving children all over the world with the money.  But we don’t, because that isn’t efficient, and that isn’t effective. What confuses me is that on a micro level, people suddenly see it as the only option.  Perhaps exploring other options, and fully examining the potential foibles and pitfalls of food aid is in order, rather than leaping into it.

Feeding starving people is an emotionally driven action.  It’s personally satisfying, which is nice for you.  It provides a great hero moment; it makes you feel nice about reducing human suffering.  But are you actually reducing human suffering?  What about inciting food riots, putting locals out of business, or creating dependence?  To be clear, I’m not arguing for inaction.  I’m arguing in favor of thoughtfulness, of consideration, of logical decision making.  I agree that hunger is heartbreaking, and theoretically unacceptable.  But I don’t think the best way to stop it is to hand out cheeseburgers and sacks of American-grown corn all over the world, either.

People always tell me they, “couldn’t sleep at night,” if they ignored that hungry child.  But that makes it about us, the outside observers, rather than about the child, and what they really need.  And who says the child is really starving?  Sometimes everything is as it seems, but people who work the streets know how to prey on Western emotions and senses of propriety.  We’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t think I need to explain how giving to a begging child doesn’t always go where you think it does, and the child isn’t always as they seem.

And why is it that a starving child is worse?  Because they’re helpless?  Saying that inherently contains a fault on the part of the parents.  It means that on some level, the speaker holds the parents responsible for their hunger, whereas children share no such burden.  This is not only rather not reflective of many of the cultures in which the word’s poorest live, but it applies a set of imaginary conditions in which a person is given a fair chance at making money and accessing and preparing an adequate amount of healthy food that they would choose to eat.  Food insecurity is such a complex subject, and I don’t see how we as individuals, especially if (like me) you don’t specialize in food insecurity, we can presume to step in and do good.

I don’t think there are really that many people in the world who vote in favor of children remaining hungry, so I would love to hear more honest discussions of food aid, with less righteous indignation.  Please consider the other issues at play such as those previously mentioned.  And what about equality?  Why does that ONE street child get your food, help or attention, and not the others?

For those foaming at the mouth that I could ever think of not feeding a starving child, please consider that as offended as you are when I don’t want to give food aid, I am equally offended by your assuaged conscience, by your ability to feed the child in front of you and ignore the others, and by your need to eradicate your own guilt.  The “I’m sorry, I guess I just care too much [unlike you],” line is getting a little old. I love that some people, like John Wood and this great tumblr, don’t believe in poverty porn.

And to those who discuss food insecurity and aid with intelligence, grace and level heads, I do apologize.  But lately this discussion seems inescapable, and I am continually shocked that otherwise brilliant people act as though there is only one possible correct answer to a very complex problem, and that all who disagree must be heartless.

Things to Consider Before Voluneering Abroad

Volunteering can be a rewarding addition to your life, whether at home or abroad.  However, an unfamiliar language, foreign setting, presence of extreme need and an attempt to set up your volunteering before you leave home can leave youe vulnerable.  You want to make sure that everyone involved benefits from the experience, so a little research (like talking to former volunteers) is imperative. 

  • Cost.  I’m not saying you should never pay to volunteer, but I have a strict policy that I will never pay someone for the priviledge to work for them.  If they are honestly providing me with something, however, I’m willing to at least check it out.  So what are you getting for your money?  Often it’s lodging, some meals, or even round-trip airfare.  Figure out what exactly “on-site support” means, and whether it is worth it to you.  Sometimes, the cheapest thing and the easiest thing isn’t the same, so figure out your priorities and pick an organization that matches yours.
  • Location.  Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for every place, climate or situation on earth.  Feel free to test yourself and expand your horizons, but don’t set yourself up to fail. 
  • Why are you doing this?  If you don’t know the point of your trip as well as individual projects, it’s harder to decide the best way to do them.  Try to learn the overaching as well as immediate goals of the organization as well as your career as a volunteer. 
  • Are you taking away the job of a local?  This is a big one.  In Cuba, for example, volunteering or working as a foreigner is almost impossible.  Doing so erodes the state’s ability to employ the population, which is a huge part of the contract between the state and it’s people in a Socialist country. 
  • Are you providing a necessary service?  It’s easy sometimes to just go volunteer somewhere because it’s pretty, or you’ll get some great photo ops.  But there are so many places in people in need, wouldn’t it be a shame to be less useful than you could be, or in a situation where your particular skill set isn’t necessary?
  • Who is benefitting from that service?  Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally “help out” people who don’t really need it, and who are abusing your generosity.  It’s hard to understand what poverty or luxury look like in a new place, and it is sometimes easy to be tricked.  Also, never forget that everyone you meet has a stake in what you do and who you help.  It can be hard to face, but you are a commodity.  Be mindful of it and you can save yourself from being conned or used.
  • Local involvement.  This is very important if you want your time as a volunteer to be worthwhile and important to anyone other than you.  We call this local buy-in, and without it a project is often useless
  • Knowledge of the local culture.  Do you need to know the language in this particular environment?  Are there any dos or don’ts that you need to know, such as dress code and norms of behavior for women?  Are there religious practices that may be startling to you that you should learn about in advance?  How close do people stand when they talk, and how loud do they speak? 
  • How much are you willing to learn?  If you’re just going to teach English to children and not looking to learn yourself, for example, you may want to reconsider.  In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, you should be learning from the locals and from the community you’re in.  They have a way of doing things, and they have it for a reason.  It may not be in line with your morals, it may not be your usual way, and it may not even be the best way, but if you understand the way they do things and why, you’ll be better able to help them change if that ends up being necessary.  And if it turns out they have a better way, maybe you can help some people change back home!

Good luck, and happy volunteering!  Remember to listen and keep an open mind, but be aware of your impact as much as possible.

Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

  1. You will have at least one nervous breakdown.
  2. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip30 seconds or less will do.
  3. Other countries are really not that scary.  The people are pretty much just like us–they just dress, talk and act different, and eat different food.
  4. Some days, it will suck. This is because it is real life, not an extended vacation.  So laugh and keep moving.  Even if you have to fake it, you probably won’t notice when you stop needing to.
  5. You will spend too much money.
  6. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss
  7. It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning.
  8. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it.
  9. Everyone lies about how perfect study abroad is.  Study abroad is awesome, but not perfect.  I promise, your friends don’t post pictures, blogs or status updates about feeling overwhelmed, having trouble making friends, or being ridiculously homesick.  No one wants to admit “defeat” especially since everyone else’s time seems so perfect.  But everyone is having their rough days, too.
  10. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home.

Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!