Voluntourism and the age of the self

The mold at the core of Hamline values threatens to rot with the return of volunteers.

Andy Stec, Columnist

There are few phrases more detrimental on a liberal arts campus than, “Look at the difference I’m making”, a realization I’d only truly made after witnessing the wave of self-praising social media posts following the close of spring break. These posts depicted 20-somethings in downtrodden, destitute locales doing volunteer work over their weeklong academic hiatus. Smiling faces accompanied self-congratulatory descriptions of the work they’d done and the important difference they’d made in that community.

The perversion of volunteer work and charity into an egotistical form of self-assurance is expected, perhaps propagated, at a school which puts such great focus on social justice. This is not, of course, to downplay the good work that many do. I have great respect for those people who have dedicated their lives to aiding others, and given voices to those who were voiceless, but there is a serious issue fermenting on campus that I believe many notice but few express. As Louis C.K. voiced in his standup,

“If you are 20 years old, I guarantee you you have never done anything, for anyone, ever. Yes, you went on a school trip to Guatemala, and they told you you helped, but you totally did not help.”

While inflammatory and slightly bombastic (Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17 for her work in educational rights in Pakistan, comes to mind), there is more than a grain of truth to C.K.’s sentiment. It lies in the way charity has adapted to an increasingly culturally capitalist society, where good intentions remain skin-deep and volunteer work has transformed into an experience of the self, rather than of the other. C.K. jokes,

“Just take her picture with a shovel and send her home so she can put it on Facebook.”

I spoke to Amanda Erickson, a First Year who spent her spring break on the Milwaukee Catalyst trip focusing on food justice. She expressed that the experience as a whole was positive and offered insight on the intersects of socioeconomic status and race in relation to food justice.

“I think, at times, these types of trips can set people in the mentality that they are going to fix or change things in a certain area. Although our work was definitely helpful for the community partners we worked with, we didn’t ‘change’ or address these issues directly.”

Erickson seemed to walk away with the right ideas; the trip had opened up and broadened her understanding of an issue in modern society, but she was humble and realistic enough to know that they had not arrived and saved the day.

My fear is that this idea was lost on others. It’s important to realize that making any sort of impact on social justice in any community requires hard, sustained work and remarkable expertise. There is little impact an untrained volunteer can truly do in a timeframe as limited as week—and at its core, I think Catalyst recognizes this. The trips are not meant to truly make any great strides in changing lives and communities, but in educating the students who partake in them.

A recent Op-ed at the “New York Times” explored this decidedly modern phenomenon known as ‘Voluntourism’.  It occurs with everything from mission trips and alternative spring breaks to affluent tourists hoping to see “the real side of [insert country name here].” ‘Voluntourists’ can often be quite damaging to the communities they ‘help’. How many potential jobs has a voluntourist stolen by doing menial labor that they aren’t really trained to do? How many short-sighted school construction projects have failed to recognize the need for qualified teachers? Or a budget to pay them?

The D.C. Catalyst trip, focusing on homelessness issues, troubled me the most. During it, students took part on a 48-hour “homeless plunge”, spending time—with an assumed identity and story—as a member of the homeless community. Several of these Facebook posts highlighted how ‘depressing’ and inconvenient they found being homeless, while posting pictures of the various sights and locations they visited in their time on the streets. No student, no matter how long they may try, can grasp what it is to be homeless while knowing that they have a home to go to—a life to return to.

The very fact that we are privileged enough to travel the country, or even the world, does not give us the inborn ability to supposedly cure its ills. This is part of a larger systemic problem here at Hamline, where social justice amongst the student body is more often than not a self-congratulatory and paper-thin process. This pseudo-social activism is a deeply embedded part of ‘liberal’ society as a whole—ingraining in us a shallow sense of humanitarianism that focuses more on the pleasure of our egotistical selves than on the aid of actual communities. It is a dogma that is not easily remedied, and is certainly not limited to our campus. If this University is to continue in its pursuit of developing socially aware and active individuals, it should take a close look at not only the issues of society—but at how it trains its students to go about them.