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.