Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

Our Role in Disaster Recovery

In the wake of a disaster, it is understandable that the reaction of an alternative breaker (past or present) is to ask - how can I help? and - how soon can we get there? We have an immense responsibility to make thoughtful and well-informed decisions about our role in disaster recovery and the reality is, good intentions don’t always yield positive results.

The two stages, generally speaking, to be aware of after a natural disaster: 1) response and relief and 2) recovery. Response and relief is the immediate work to minimize any harm or hazard caused by the disaster. Recovery includes returning a community to the pre-disaster state of normalcy, or better - a sense of revitalization for all.

Response and relief may take weeks or months to complete and short-term, unskilled workers are often unable to perform the tasks necessary during that critical period. Resources have already dwindled for current residents, the stakes are high, and the expertise needed is particular.

Inaction isn’t the solitary option for outsiders seeking to offer support during the initial stage. (And active citizens would hardly consider inaction an option.) Active citizenship includes philanthropy: which, in this instance, is donating money - not unsolicited resources and ensuring that organizations you’re supporting are funneling those resources directly into affected communities.

As communities eventually shift their thinking to long-term recovery, short-term volunteers can begin to play a role, but must be willing to acknowledge the realities from recoveries in the past, and move forward ready to center community and the community’s voice - especially those who may have been marginalized prior to any natural disaster. For breakers looking to plan trips to the impacted areas, we have nothing less than sage advice taken from one of our favorite reads, Working Side By Side:

  • Sustain Media Attention. No matter how urgent the needs or how compelling the stories of a community or a social issue, the media spotlight will fade sooner than expected, as will related public interest and investment in those communities. Alternative break programs can help keep media attention on places with long-term acute need.

  • Long-Term Commitment. A longer-term commitment made up front by those seeking to be involved in community work communicates intent for a different model of service. The nature of alternative breaks is inherently short-term; issues resulting from disaster and poverty are complex and require sustained attention to respond to appropriately and build trust.

  • Coordinate Efforts. Community building takes consistent and coordinated effort. Direct service, particularly in disaster areas, should be coordinated so volunteers aren’t overwhelming to the host community and direct service efforts aren’t just duplications of the prior group. Additionally, higher education professionals possess unique and valuable skills and resources. These program leaders, organized strategically and in a nationwide collaboration, could create much more effective results in the community than by acting independently, while easing logistical work for each other and enabling focus on deeper-quality experiences.

  • Communication and Collaboration. Collaborative work thrives with regular communication that develops strong relationships between campuses and community organizations, staff advisors on multiple campuses, and staff advisors and their university administrators.

(Working Side By Side, 339-340, 2015)

Our thoughts are with those preparing for Hurricane Jose, those impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and with the many around the world who have been devastated by extreme weather. If you’re interested in learning more about our role in disaster recovery and considering the potential for collective action with alternative breaks, join us for our September National Conference call.

Dear Graduates, Alternative Breaks Are Over…

...Or are they? You had a powerful experience (or experiences), and as you walk across the graduation stage to receive your diploma, you’re probably asking yourself does it have to be over? Well... not really. It may look different, but you can and should find ways to stay engaged in your program and the Movement.

Chances are you went on an alternative break that caused some sort of mindset or lifestyle shift: finding lifelong friendships, developing a deeper knowledge of social issues, getting outside of what was once comfortable, or even coming to understand that the game Flash is appropriate for any social situation.

If you’ve had an experience like this, you know it’s valuable and that alternative breaks should be an opportunity available to any (and every) student.

As alumni, we now have the chance to support other current and future alternative breakers in new, creative ways. Maybe it’s donating to your alma mater's program (or the Movement) or showing your support on social media. It could even be hosting a future alternative break group for dinner when they’re in your city, offering to be a guest speaker at a pre-trip meeting, or staying in touch with your friend’s at Break Away (that’s us!).

More than that, know you’re not alone. If you have tried to describe how much an alternative break experience meant to you - at some point, you’ve likely found yourself at a loss for words. Well, the good news is, there are thousands of alternative break alumni who know almost exactly how you feel. Just because you aren’t going on another trip, doesn’t mean you won’t identify with alternative breaks. You now share an identity with thousands of other graduates who are, like you, lifelong breakers and active citizens.

So friends, we offer you our congratulations and invite you to join us in the ongoing process of supporting alternative breaks and actualizing active citizenship.  

Beyond the Tried and True Empathy Skills pt. 3

At this point, we understand that each person enters the world with a unique frame of reference; and sometimes, we’re led to division - operating within echo chambers of likeness and rarely building empathy across difference. Actualizing a fully inclusive society can’t be an “us vs. them” issue. No one is disposable in a functioning, thriving community.

We know some of the tried and true approaches toward empathy (create brave spaces, lean into discomfort, listen to understand rather than to inform, validate others’ feelings and experience, etc.) but there are other, often more challenging skills to develop - especially as allies taking risks for communities that experience oppression:

  • (Re)Build a sense of curiosity. At one point in our lives - often, as children - most of us experience insatiable curiosity. While venturing into adulthood, the desire for knowledge and understanding about everything narrows and may even diminish. The benefits of a strong sense of curiosity? The drive to ask questions and embrace humility - understanding that we have much to learn from those around us.
  • Find common ground and share stories. It’s easier to establish relationships through connection. Work to find a mutual foundation (however big or small) to build from. As different as we may be from another person, chances are you have something in common. (i.e. You would eat breakfast burritos for every meal, too?! or I’ve never met someone else who had a bowl cut until the age of twelve!)
  • Decenter yourself by turning off your alarm system. Yes, triggers are real. And they’re entirely valid. When we’re constantly on edge - ready to pounce on a misspoken word, phrase, or idea that strays from the realm of a socially just world - we may miss out on an opportunity for growth and understanding. It’s a heavy responsibility, but in order to practice true empathy, we must assume best intent - responding with patience and compassion. This is hard, and it can be hurtful - so make sure you’re as physically and psychologically safe as you need to be too.
  • Make space for your emotional processing. Working for empathy across difference - especially when issues are so personal - is taxing. We don’t need to push aside our own beliefs or feelings in the process. Make time to take care of yourself by finding camaraderie for support and relief or your own best practices for recuperation.

The reality is, empathy is a skill much larger than “putting yourself in someone else's shoes.” Consider this a reminder (and a challenge) not to take the easy way out by staying in our communities of likeness, but instead, taking the difficult path of expanding our communities across difference. Borrowing from Audre Lorde, “Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

We will not be free until we are all free, and no one is left behind.

The Danger of the “New Normal” pt. 2

No matter what you believe in or how you identify, people are naturally drawn to communities of likeness. This isn’t condemnable, it isn’t unreasonable, but it is notable - especially when you consider the reality that active citizens are interested in thriving communities for all people.

In social justice education, at some point we all learn that our world is socialized. Consequently, we’re responsible for unlearning notions that were once normalized and reinforced by individuals, systems, and culture. That knowledge gained expands our frame of reference.

The time and effort it takes to attain a new understanding of the world also happens to distance us from the realities of where we once were. And as we settle into distinctive communities of affinity, we go through a new sort of socialization. This micro-socialization regulates a particular language, code of ethics, and culture.

This “new normal” has allowed us to antagonize those who hold differing beliefs or levels of understanding. This distance often results in the difficult undertaking of practicing patience, assuming best intent, or hearing someone with a differing viewpoint.

To mend the apparent polarized divide, the majority of people (including us) bestow the same advice: practice empathy. Easier said than done, though. Naturally, how we talk about empathy is often selective: folks interested in justice work will lean toward feeling empathy for marginalized communities and stop there. Those with a worldview limited to their own lived experience may tend to lean toward feeling empathy for their specific communities or those similar. There’s an invisible disconnect between who we’re willing to feel empathy for - a truth that ultimately furthers our misunderstanding and divide.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her most recent book Strangers in Their Own Land, described this phenomenon as an empathy wall or “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.”

This week, consider which communities you more naturally feel empathy for and others where you feel the empathy wall may exist. In our next blog post we'll tackle specific ways to apply this knowledge to expand our capacity for empathy.