Consider these two ways to tell a story upon returning home from an alternative break:
- We served meals at a food bank for the week. I couldn’t believe how many people needed help feeding themselves and their families.The lack of grocery stores or markets in that area makes it impossible for individuals to eat healthily and live a holistically-well life. We saw a lot of malnutrition and obesity. Witnessing it inspired me. There are so many people in the world who live a less fortunate life than mine, so it’s important for me to keep giving back.
- We served meals at a food bank for the week. I loved getting to know the staff and community members around us. I always thought that people who needed food assistance were those experiencing homelessness, but I was surprised that so many people can barely get by with the rising costs of living. The neighborhood in that city has few grocery stores, but the food bank is one of the many initiatives the community is taking to support each other in making healthy, affordable food accessible. So much good work is happening there, and I’m excited to bring some of these ideas back home with me.
Ethical volunteerism is essential to consider while preparing for the trip, while on the trip, and even after it’s over. Breakers carry a responsibility to ethically explain their experiences - ensuring we’re not sharing stories of individuals for personal credibility or gain, or perpetuating narratives that focus on the deficits of communities that once welcomed us in.
We all have preconceived notions of other people; these can be broken when we hear a disruptive narrative or learn an interfering fact. There’s power in storytelling, and as breakers, we must be thoughtful of the pictures we’re painting of the communities we’re working with. There’s beauty in being able to vulnerably admit personal moments of misconception and growth. Ultimately, the best result is to internalize the lessons learned and values gained - and act accordingly.
We live in an age where putting ourselves and experiences on display is commonplace. The world we witness can be shared with the tap of a finger: keeping friends and family up-to-date on the individual we’re becoming. Beyond our personal lives - social media plays a huge, and often unfortunate, role in the volunteer industry.
Though it’s uncomfortable, it’s imperative to critically examine the cringe-worthy evidence of voluntourism dissected and satirized in media: volunteers - both internationally and domestically - often portray their experience in a way that dehumanizes, and demoralizes communities they are entering.
Breakers have the responsibility to exercise caution with social media on both a personal and programmatic level - everything from ensuring informed, legal consent is attained when photographing other people (especially children) to considering how pictures and narratives are presented.
Individually, breakers must be wary of the intentions behind each post. It takes self-awareness and honesty to realize whether or not the picture is for your own self-promotion. After intent is examined, impact has to be considered - is the photo you’re sharing perpetuating the single story of a person or community you’ve encountered on your trip? How would the person or community you’re posting about feel if they saw your picture and read your caption?
Programmatically, leaders must be considerate of the intent and impact of promotional materials for trips. Are you using photos that maintain the savior complex or are you showing neighborhoods exercising their own power and self-determination? Are you advertising a glamorous destination or creating a platform for communities to tell their story?
Before you post, consider following these guidelines. We’ll also offer some ideas for ways you can positively use social media on an alternative break:
- Tell a story to disrupt the single stories - challenging your followers’ preconceived notions of service and the people you’re working with.
- Commit to remaining interested and invested in the work of the organizations you volunteered with by following their social media.
- Use your own pages as a platform for organizations that amplify the community’s voice - share their message and support them (virtually and philanthropically) long after the trip is over.
If you’ve heard of the 8 Components of a Quality Alternative Break, you know that the focus of education, orientation, and training (the Learning Components) is vital to the experience. It deepens our knowledge, makes topics easier to talk about, and creates a more tangible understanding for a participant. However, the language and theory we’re learning can prove harmful when the academic perspectives are placed on experiences within the community or on community members themselves.
Consider this example: A group of breakers travels to Baltimore, Maryland to work in an after-school program geared toward middle schoolers. One of the days, the participants of the trip choose to wear their AB shirts on site so they can get a group photo. The trips have their program’s logo on the front and the list of the program’s trip titles and locations on the back - including Protecting Vulnerable Youth: Dismantling the School-to-Prison-Pipeline, Baltimore, MD. Though the intentions are harmless, the impact is clear. What is the message sent to the students reading your shirts?
We believe in education and looking inward in order to be aware of the privilege you bring into a space. We become educated, oriented, and trained to give context for the institutional, societal, and historical underpinnings of why service-work is necessary, not to cloud a volunteer’s vision with stories of needs, deficits, and diagnosis. We do it to de-center ourselves.
How can we be better? By treating people like people and focusing on building real relationships with individuals organizations. By engaging in authentic (not voyeuristic) conversations with community members - hearing and sharing stories. Embodying humility as guests in spaces that aren’t our own.
For the duration of February, we highlight the history of African Americans in this country - most often those who have paved the way for freedom and justice. You probably know it, but we’ll say it again (just in case): we don’t live in a post-racial society. While this fact may be understood by many, it’s a persistent reminder of another: it takes work to uncover the reprehensible backstory the United States was built upon.
Is it hard? Yes. Is it necessary? Entirely.
When we don’t say the words, when we don’t recount the past - too often, the records of our history remain there. Until we acknowledge and recognize the most uncomfortable, often incomprehensible, parts of our collective history, we’ll continue to see it repeated in different forms: years of “separate but equal” that eventually morphed into intentional systems of racist housing policies and redlining, and presently, in a prison system with more black people under criminal supervision than there were those in slavery.
Uncovering the truth of hundreds of years of forced servitude and the decades of racism that followed is a difficult lesson to learn. But honestly facing it by expecting more expansive (and ugly) US history lessons and actually knowing and honoring the countless untold stories - is essential in order to move forward.
Societal racism is not a problem for one single person, one single community, or one single state - though it’s necessary to face at every level. The root of our nation’s patterns of racism runs deep - from the very beginnings of this country forward, and if we desire a future that truly deviates, we need a process of Truth and Reconciliation.
What can individuals do? (A quick caveat before we continue on: we are writing this blog as non-black people. We recognize that our understanding and perspective is limited and we welcome, with this post and all others, any suggestions that will help offer a more comprehensive lens.) That being said, here are a few suggestions: educate ourselves, talk to our friends and family, support and prioritize each other, and during Black History month, especially, celebrate both those who have paved the way for justice and those who were made invisible.