Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sarah's Reflection from Pre-Trip Meeting #2 on Service Learning vs. Voluntourism

The October 29 pre trip meeting focused on the subject of “voluntourism” or “poverty tourism”.  I was introduced to these terms a few years ago alongside Paulo Freire.  After studying Freire and applying his concepts to “voluntourism”, I became passionate about the destructive power that our actions can hold.  Many see the concepts behind voluntourism as a good thing—as did I, but after really analyzing the consequences of our actions on a large scale, it is clear that our impact goes beyond giving handouts to the poor.  When discussing Freire and voluntourism terms like, “oppressed”, “oppressor”, “charity”, etc are used frequently.  These terms can be met with a lot of connotations that may prevent us from a critical analysis of the greater impact and issues at hand.  So it is essential to come into these topics with an open mind, ready to analyze, think critically, and think out of the box.

There is a fine line between service learning and charity.  The crux of this divide is the latter part of the former term—learning.  However, this too can be a slippery slope of oppression.  I am going to analyze the dynamics of good and bad international service from a Freireian prospective.  If you are not familiar, Paulo Freire was an educator who raised some of the most monumental ideas in the field of education and service learning.  To encompass Freire in a page or two is impossible and I would highly recommend reading his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  But for the purposes of this reflection I will attempt to give a short synopsis of Freire’s argument.

To start, Freire defines “oppression” and delves into what it means to be an oppressed person and what it means to be an oppressor.  What is difficult about these terms is the connotation they bring.  As an American, to hear the word oppressor, automatically brings about images of regimes, dictators, and violence.  Freire would agree, but he would also call many of our preconceptions, stereotypes, and systems as oppressive in nature.  This was difficult to understand and conceptualize at first, but as I read further into Freire’s argument it became abundantly clear.  There is an uneven dynamic in our world.  I don’t think anyone would deny that.  There are developed countries and developing countries, rich countries and poor countries, 1st world and 3rd world—few would argue that it is a “fair” world that we live in.  That statement may seem Hobbesian, but it’s true.  (I realize that there are those out there that take the stance that everyone has the opportunity to better themselves and that it is up to them to take the reigns of their life if they want to escape their current situation.  Despite the multiplicity of uninformed opinions that statement requires, it is also a capitalist, elitist, and privileged way of looking at the world and for the purposes of this argument, we are not going to go down that rabbit trail).  What Freire would argue is that western, northern, imperialistic thinking created this unfair system through oppression. 

Oppression can come in many different forms and those forms have changed throughout the centuries.  For starters we developed the system of rich and poor, developing and developed, and 1st world and third world through imperialism and  colonization.  Because the imperializing countries took land by whatever means possible, conducted genocide, slavery, and the vast dehumanization of anyone that they saw as “other”, developed a North-South dynamic that is engrained in our subsequent cultures today.  This is tough, but the mere fact that I am typing this on a laptop for a graduate school reflection points to the fact that I am an oppressor.  Oppressive nature is so deeply rooted in our thinking that most will never realize it.  Now, obviously we are not conducting genocide, slavery, and imperialization anymore, but there is still a form of oppression that most would consider ‘non violent’.  Those of us who have studies IR theory see this oppression as structural violence. 

Violence according to Johan Galtung (who I would also highly recommend) is “present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations”.  Freire would call this oppression: “any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression.  Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individuals ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.  With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.  Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed… violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons—not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.”  (55)  We use words like “poverty”, “hunger”, “racism”, “sexism”.  In the end, it is one in the same.  Whether we are forcing others down with guns and disease or keeping them in their plight by perpetuating a cycle that is nearly impossible to break, it all constitutes oppression and/or structural violence. 

Now you might be asking, ‘how am I an oppressor if I want to help people’?  Freire says, “as [we] cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, [we] almost always bring with [us] the marks of [our] origin: [our] prejudices and [our] deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the peoples ability to think, to want, and to know.”   Here are a few questions to reflect upon. They might help us all realize the extent to which this oppression is embedded in our culture and upbringing:
  • Do you own a cell phone?
 Did you know that your cell phone contains elements that are mined by children in Africa where literacy rates are below 30%, the majority of children do not finish primary school (grade 4-6 depending on the region), and the life expectancy is around 50 years?

  • When you see commercials on tv that show pictures of orphans and starving children do you feel compelled to “give 50 cents a day” or whatever the slogan is that they are using?
 First of all, the fact that we are watching commercials about starving children on tv is a sign of oppression.  Second of all, when we feel pity for the kids on the tv and feel compelled to give some incredible minimal amount of money to “make a difference”, it dehumanizes the person on that screen.  It automatically sets us up as the ones on top.  We are the saviors and they need saving.  They are “other” and a feeling of pity flushes over us because we are incapable of empathizing with their plight.  We’re incapable because compared to the rest of the world, we are filthy, filthy rich.  If you have a bed to sleep in under a stable roof and a refrigerator with food in it, we are rich.
  • Do you buy your food in a grocery store?
Think about this for a minute.  We just looked at the idea of watching starving children on our television.  Now consider the fact that we walk into huge buildings with rows upon rows of food (and more in the back that we don’t see).

I think you catch my drift here.  I’m not saying that we are bad people, we aren’t.  In fact, I would argue that the majority of people who engage in poverty tourism actually have good intentions.  However, good intentions without critically thinking contributes nothing and again perpetuates an oppressive system.

Freire discussed revolutionary ideas that I wish I had more room to discuss; ideas like “banking education”, which basically means that teachers dump information onto students and students learn.  Sounds pretty basic right?  But Freire even sees that as oppressive.  He argues that education banking removes critical analysis, dialogue, and the exchange of ideas.  It is the latter terms which ultimately foster change.  Again, for the purposes of this reflection I will resist summarizing all of his insightful ideas and get to the point—what’s the difference between service learning and charity and how can we contribute to the greater goal of ending oppression and structural violence?

Charity sets up the dynamic of us and them and savior and victim.  Charity work is fostered from good intentions, but lacks a critical look at the real issues, ultimately making oppression worse.  When service is not sustainable, we oppress.  We oppress because there is no reciprocation.  Charity is the one sided exchange of tangible resources that perpetuate dependence and limit the ability and potential of those we serve.

Service learning is the exchange of ideas.  Critical thinking and analysis is essential to service learning.  A removal of tiers, stereotypes, and “banking” is absolutely vital if learning is to take place.  Dialogue is an intrinsic part to this process.  Without dialogue progress will halt.  At every stage of the process of liberation from oppression and structural violence, dialogue and critical thinking should be present.  WE ARE NOT THE EXECUTORS OF THE TRANSFORMATION.  Freire puts it more eloquently: “the correct method lies in dialogue…a revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education.  Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality; are both subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge.  As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators.  In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be:  not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement”.

We have an opportunity contribute to the process of liberation and to engage in reciprocal dialogue.  We have a chance to exchange ideas and to learn from each other.  The African refugees have a unique viewpoint and experience to bring to the table, as do the Israelis and Palestinians that we will encounter, which means we have multiple outlets and countless opportunities for learning and growth on this trip!

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