Our country is gearing up for what could be one of the largest voter turnouts for midterm elections. As active citizens, we know there is no such thing as “not my issue” - politics are deeply intertwined in our work. Groups of people have been excluded from the democratic process as long as it has existed, their voices deemed unimportant (or dangerous) by those holding power. And though laws have been amended, giving more individuals the ability to freely vote, many members of our communities are still left in the margins.
If you’ve ever attended a Diversity and Social Justice training, you’ve heard of privilege - the unearned advantages people experience based in their identity or experience. These conversations typically center race, gender, ability, religion, and the like, but we rarely consider the pervasiveness of privilege when it comes to civic participation. Often we think of power in politics falling on the shoulders of elected officials - while there is truth in this, power also lies in being able to easily cast a ballot that you know will count.
Our elected officials are expected to be direct representatives of our communities. We’re taught that a vote is a way to express our personal interest in the democracy, but active citizens must also consider our ballot’s larger impact. Just as we’d expect our legislators in the chambers of state or federal capitol buildings to represent those whose voices wouldn’t otherwise be heard, does our vote represent all communities - including those left in the margins of voting access?
During this election season, we invite you to join us in considering how to redistribute and utilize the power of dialogue and civic engagement. As we prepare to take a clear stance on issues that matter, as voters, we must ensure we’re informed and intentional. It takes time and effort - often hours to research what should be (but rarely is) a simple proposal. If you’re going to find yourself in a poll booth this November 6th (and we really hope you will) remember that the opportunity to vote comes with the weight of responsibility: how are you advocating for the people and environment around you through the boxes you check?
Finally, if you’re a living in this country, but unable to vote - your voice has influence. It matters. And we’re honored to be in community with you.
We’ve been quiet for a little while. Of course, the parts of us that love you hope you’ve noticed, but the parts of us that feel guilty for our silence hope you haven’t. We’ve been away because our humble team has been busy as we diligently prepare for the 2018 ABCs. We’re back for a moment to bring you a final note for the summer before we depart for our two-month excursion across the country and back.
For those who aren’t familiar, the ABCs are week-long conferences based (no surprise here) in an experiential learning model where students, staff, and community partners convene from across the country for all things alternative breaks and active citizenship. (It’s arguably our favorite time of the year.) We are joined by Programs Interns who breathe a bit of extra energy - and style - into our team, we witness dreamy friendships form between breakers once strangers, and we delve deeply into four different education topics as varied as organizing for workers rights to using art as a form of placemaking.
Though we’ll be on hiatus (virtually), rest assured we’ll be bringing posts to you that will highlight the best of what we’ve learned, and what we think you’ll want to know too. We’d be thrilled if you’d 1) let us know if you’ll be in the area of one of our four conferences so we can (officially) invite you to visit us, and 2) keep up with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We’ll be back in August but until then, we’d love to engage with you on all things social media, and will keep our fingers crossed that we’ll see you somewhere along the way!
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.