By LAURA SANCHEZ, Opinions Editor
It’s quite fitting to talk about community service this time of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day asks Americans to serve in their communities, to volunteer, and to donate their time to pressing and urgent problems in their own neighborhoods, and in their own backyards, as they use the principles and legacy of Dr. King.
. I’ve personally been volunteering in different areas of my communities my entire life, and volunteering is definitely a humbling, unique experience. It means giving back to the community that gives me so much, to check my privilege, and to understand and try and resolve problematic issues. Volunteering and community service is much more than an act. It’s more of a way of life, of understanding and doing.
But sometimes volunteering isn’t as “good” as it initially suggests. On my Facebook feed, I oftentimes see countless posts about voluntourism, people who travel abroad to volunteer in different communities. For instance, some travel to try and give medical assistance to some malnourished children or assist with births in low-income clinics. You might be saying how wonderful it is to give back to those in need (it is), and how noble it is for a student to use his or her vacation time to give back to those in need (quite so!), and how wonderful it is for students to travel and see sectors of the world they haven’t experienced (I agree). I haven’t gone on such trips myself, but I understand what a humbling experience it must be to actually interact with the recipients of service in ways that differ from other forms of service, like donating to communities abroad, which can be quite detached from the actual ‘good’ deeds and community service. It humanizes a process
However, voluntourism can also be quite problematic in ways that victimize and make the ‘recipients’ of the service extremely vulnerable and ‘Othered.’ By flashing a smile to the camera as you pose with a bunch of children at a hospital, you’re ignoring their real plight as you intend to capture that picture-perfect, dashing smile, that perfect moment that captures your humane spirit and your giving heart that will for sure garner hundreds of likes on Facebook, hashtag galore: #VolunteeringinAfrica #SelfieTimeWithTheKids. It can be argued that in this case, voluntourism isn’t done for the betterment of communities abroad: it is done to better the lives of those donating their time and traveling. By portraying these children as passive individuals in need of a Western savior and indicating that this medical student is their hero, their tie to a cultured, privileged (Western) world, you’re making these people ‘Others,’ therefore reinforcing the perpetuation of acts of domination and subordination of some cultures over others.
I’m not saying that this is the case in all cases worldwide; I understand that not all those who travel abroad to aid different communities fall under the category of those who simply travel abroad to feel better about themselves. But there are so many other different problematic situations that may arise in these situations, such as bringing Westernized views to countries that have different cultural practices and thus require non-Western solutions. Thus, it’s not always easy to travel abroad and bring solutions that cannot be applicable to inhabitants of the country you’re visiting.
So just remember that community service IS beautiful. It is an act more people should engage in – as long as they’re doing it for the right reasons and as long as they are hyperaware of the privileges they hold and the way they wish to resolve pressing issues.