Break Away’s vision is to build a society of active citizens. Not only is reflection a crucial step in this process, it’s also vital for a quality service or community-based learning experience. Reflection is a rare opportunity to process new information and plan for future action. Structured reflection in a group setting should create an environment where all participants are able to contextualize their own experience while also considering larger systems that perpetuate or alleviate social injustice.
We believe quality reflection is predicated on three foundational pieces: a well-built team; a strong curricular framework; and a critical understanding of privilege, oppression, and social justice. In this series of blog posts, we’ll illuminate our tips to planning, facilitating, and participating in a topic-based and forward-thinking reflection.
Start before reflection begins.
As Audre Lorde described “the true focus of revolutionary change is to seek the piece of the oppressor that is planted inside of us.” When we practice self-evaluation, we broaden our perspective and begin unlearning false realities we’re raised with. Once the process of addressing the ways we’re socialized has begun, each of us is responsible for re-learning how to navigate the world as stewards of our communities and advocates for justice.
The process of deconstructing and reconstructing is uncomfortable and, often, unsettling. Navigating these conversations is unlikely to happen among people unfamiliar to each other. In reflection’s best iteration, groups with well-established relationships reflect together - creating an environment where participants are able to be vulnerable and to experience growth.
Leaders of the experience must prioritize developing the team well before the formal reflection begins to reach the ideal group setting for reflection. Try enhancing pre-trip curriculum to equip participants with necessary knowledge and language, or try bringing reflection into informal spaces (like car rides or downtime) so folks can get comfortable talking about the topic. Consider - in what ways are you using group builders to create an environment of trust where growth and learning can flourish?
Many of us have the desire to be a quick fixer. Table a little wobbly at a coffee shop? Fold up a napkin and shove it under the leg. Not enough people to volunteer at an on-campus event? Gather as many folks as you can and offer them free pizza. Your friend has too much work on their plate? Join them in a late night study session. A natural reaction to identifying problems is to try and find solutions. But this isn’t always the right move.
While progressing along the Active Citizen Continuum, we uncover realities of a long history of injustice and resulting generations of trauma experienced by marginalized communities. We find individual - often incredibly personal - stories of violence and discrimination, barred or inhibited access to basic needs, and tragic events that alter life’s course. We also know traumatic events happen to people every day. The pain that comes with it can’t simply be fixed. There isn’t a one-size fits all approach and there isn’t a singular solution. Healing processes look different and more often than not, are everlasting.
As outsiders to an experience, whether or not we hold shared identities, or even shared experiences, we have to be okay with knowing that although we can’t fix it and we won’t fully understand - we can humbly approach offering what we can to support. Knowing when not to act is a critical and overlooked skill in the pursuit of active citizenship. Anguish cannot be relieved by knowing the “right” thing to say or even offering answers earnestly found by trying to understand how other people have healed. When our immediate response to grief is proposing solutions, we’re disregarding a necessary part of the healing process.
So what can we do as friends and supporters? Sometimes being a listening ear or a physical presence is the most important role. Someone sharing their grief doesn’t want to hear “things could be worse” or “at least it’s not xyz.” Often all you can do is suffer alongside and do what you can to lighten the burden.
We need to slow down and decenter ourselves. Be present, listen to understand, let them know they aren’t alone - especially when personal suffering exists beyond others’ attention span. Those who go through the process of healing adjust to their new reality but are fundamentally changed by it. The trauma never really leaves. Show up - even when it’s hard - it’s when we need communities the most.
An alternative break lasts more than a week. (Don’t worry, we won’t finish that statement with it lasts a lifetime.) “Traditional” alternative breaks have become more established, and with increased sophistication, comes (you guessed it) more dedicated time and energy. Most programs curate an alternative break experience that lasts for months before the actual date of departure.
For an alternative break to become a catalyst toward active citizenship, the foundation your trip is built on - the preparation - is what really counts. A group without intentional time to build authentic relationships with one another will not reach its full potential in developing as a team. A team entering a community without extensive pre-departure education on the topic and community (paired with a little self-reflection) has a greater potential to cause harm. And ultimately, a breaker who returns home and doesn’t recognize their potential as an agent of change in their community has fallen short of understanding the true purpose of why we do this work.
We know that active citizenship, once we commit, is something we devote a lifetime to, so if we’re in it for the long haul anyway - why not start now?
It should not be normal to go to your place of worship, a concert, the grocery store, a movie theater - or simply exist in your community - and feel unsafe. This isn’t new. It has been true for members of marginalized communities since the beginning of time - targeted and persecuted for simply being. But this troubling reality has come into sharpened focus as violence has crept into every space and every community. After the tragic events of last week, our hearts are aching, alongside many others.
We live with constant streaming headlines. With the volume of information that comes our way, it’s even possible to find ourselves numbed by the ongoing atrocities in our world. To stand in solidarity with any community affected by injustice, it’s not enough to listen to a podcast to understand the nuances of what happened or to offer simple expressions of sadness in a post to our friends. Bearing witness is important but it fades quickly and has little lasting impact.
Grief induced by injustice extends far beyond the short mourning period our screens tempt us to experience. We do have to continue moving forward, but taking time to honor the grieving process is a sacred act. Are we turning to our neighbors to share the emotional burden? Are we paying attention to communities in the months and years after the news cameras have left - when their stories are no longer being told? Are we giving resources to those asking for support?
As witnesses to tragedy, terrorism, and bigotry - what will it take to compel us to act? Not just today, or tomorrow - before our attention has shifted to something else - but through everyday actions to commemorate the lives lost as individual acts of oppression persist.