Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

The Ethical Volunteer (Part 1): Engaging on Site

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.

A History Dismissed is a Future Diminished

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.