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 and 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.

Five Years in a Movement, Hundreds of Years in the Making

A couple of weeks ago, our staff attended a lecture at the Carter Center by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist. Patrisse’s book was released in January, five years after she co-founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

We thought we’d share some of the highlights from Patrisse’s conversation with NPR’s Rose Scott (but don’t just take it from us, listen to a snippet for yourself!):

On a movement: A movement isn’t something that is simply declared, it is something that is felt, by many. Its success isn’t always linear - there will be some wins, along with many setbacks. To try and determine impact solely by progress undercuts the soul of the vision. According to Patrisse, the success of a movement is determined by the energy surrounding it. The start of #BlackLivesMatter was both raw and entirely necessary - inciting action and raising widespread awareness of realities that had been present for hundreds of years.

On being a disruptor: In the work of justice, being a disruptor is something to be applauded. To disrupt “business as usual” means interrupting the norm - to question narratives, and subsequent systems, that affect individual people and entire communities. (For example, the disproportionate incarceration rates of black and brown people.) Questioning the status quo means having courageous conversations that increase awareness - paving the way for change.

On prioritizing the people around you: Not unfamiliar to us, Patrisse spoke to the need for prioritizing each other. Sitting on the stage, she attributed her success to being mentored and invested in at the age of 16 by another organizer. What it took (and what it takes) for so many of us, is to have someone see our potential, to experience someone taking the time to support us in our growth and development, and to participate in building a reciprocal relationship.

Patrisse Kahn-Cullors reminded us of the influence storytelling can have: using experiences as power to unite people around a vision. Black lives matter. Our society recognizing that is imperative. In order to feel compelled to act, we need to feel the urgency of this movement.

In some of her final words - Patrisse left the group with a critical reminder to keep asking ourselves, what am I doing for the team around me? And so - how are we, as active citizens, expanding our understanding of the people on our team and what are we doing, every day, for them?