We Come to Serve, Not to Save: International Service Immersion

May 15, 2014- Posted by Lucy Adams, VT Engage Engagement Program Associate & Adi Kusuma, Civic Engagement Associate at VT Engage and a doctoral student at the Center for Public Administration and Policy.

A Leader’s Frustration (Lucy)

Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic: “We did it!” Our team high fives each another over the garden bed we’ve just finished. We step back to admire our work and snap photos.

Yesterday, we met the family who lives here and I wish they were around now to see the finished product. I ask where they are.

“The hospital,” our guide says. My stomach drops a little.

The Community Service Alliance (CSA), our nonprofit partner, builds gardens and water filters for families in this community, including those suffering from HIV/AIDs, in the hopes of increasing their quality of life with clean water and healthy food. I realize at least one person living in this house is HIV positive.

Service immersion trip to the DR 2014

Back at our hotel, our student leaders prompt us to reflect on the day’s work. All I can think about is that family.

For many people, a lack of money prevents them from even getting to the hospital. Even if they can get there, they may not be able to afford care. And for those who can afford it, there’s no system in place to teach them how to avoid spreading their disease to others.

For HIV/AIDS to be tackled in the DR, huge issues of infrastructure, economic inequality, and education must be addressed. In the face of all this, what good will our garden do?

“Those children will have healthy food the rest of their life,” a student says. Everyone nods.

I want to say: “They will also have HIV the rest of their life,” but I bite my tongue.

Healthy food is important; I know our work wasn’t meaningless. But I want to talk about the scope of the problem and the fact that our week of service doesn’t address the huge societal problems affecting that family.

Admiring a finished garden

I want our team to understand, without demoralizing them, that the garden is only a drop in the bucket. I want to do more. I want to build clinics and schools and infrastructure and . . . and . . .

On our return, I talked through our trip with VT Engage’s graduate assistant, Adi Kusuma. While he did not travel with us to the DR, he drew on his experience as an academic and an international student.

We’re Not the Only Ones with Knowledge (Adi)

I fear that we often think we’re supposed to save the communities we serve. But how would we feel if some group from far away, who couldn’t speak English, showed up in Blacksburg, decided what was important for us, and told us how we should solve our problems?

What if they changed the way we live by institutionalizing changes that were “best” according to their perspective? What if all this was done without so much as listening to us?

It is imperative that we understand the impact we might have by doing service projects, so that we do not cause harm to the communities we serve.

Elizabeth and Rigil from CSA discuss social justice issues in the DR

This is particularly important when we volunteer in developing countries. Often, our background living in a highly developed country like the U.S. gives us the false impression that we know best.

We need to realize that the people in these communities have wisdom, just as we do. The local knowledge and wisdom of what problems should be addressed needs to be our guide and should determine the service projects we undertake.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to create change. Research has shown that communities can benefit greatly from outside insight, knowledge, and expertise, when those resources are asked for and given correctly.

A Leader’s Reflection (Lucy)

We need to remove the word “savior” from our conversations about service, and start replacing it with the word “servant.” Our partnership with CSA connects us with the local knowledge and wisdom Adi discussed, and allows us to truly serve the community.

As outsiders, we need to trust that the projects our partners chose are a step in the right direction. Despite my frustration that we couldn’t do more, it isn’t our job to determine how we can be the most helpful.

As for my second frustration, of wanting to convey the bigger picture: the community is the best group to speak effectively about issues that affect them. One of CSA’s priorities is to ensure visiting students are introduced to the depth of social justice issues in the DR.

Working together is the only way to move forward

On the second day of our trip, we gathered outside a community member’s home. “Listen,” our guide said, “I want you to hear what it is like to live here.” And community members told us stories that, if we listened, could teach our students about social justice more effectively than I ever could.

We should not be afraid to trust those we serve to articulate their own problems and their own solutions.

As leaders and mentors, we can help students better understand the context of the stories they hear, but we are only connecting students with the real teachers and leaders: the community.

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