In less than two days, I’ll be on my way to Louisiana, leading an Alternative Spring Break trip to an elementary school in a very low-income rural area. My co-site-leader and I purposely picked a group of student participants from our university who have varying levels of engagement with volunteering/community service/social justice. Some of the students come from low-income areas; some have even had TFA teachers themselves. Others come from private schools in racially homogeneous neighborhoods. I have struggled with how to approach the experience. I have struggled with how to strike a balance between giving them my opinion vs. letting them form their own, avoiding brainwashing them with my own views yet simultaneously showing the errors in some commonly-held views out there. I suppose I view their pre-trip education (which has been a four-month-long process) as a series of levels:
level 0 = no awareness of social issues, little sense of self-efficacy
level 1 = some awareness, little sense of self-efficacy
level 2 = lots of awareness, increased sense of self-efficacy
level 3 = perceived nuanced awareness, overconfident sense of self-efficacy
level 4 = actually nuanced awareness, lowered sense of self-efficacy once again
This is not to say I want them all to just throw up their hands and walk away, defeated by the complexities of an issue wrapped up in generations of poverty and race and isolation. But I don’t want them to have a savior mentality. I don’t want them to go in and just extol the values of TFA as the end-all-be-all solution. Sometimes I hear some of the participants lapsing a little bit into one-sided rhetoric and I gently steer them back on course, stirring up the bucket with some “devil’s advocate” ideas, throwing in some pros and cons and thorny issues to remind them there is really no clarity in the issues we’ll face over the coming week.
A few months ago, my co-site-leader and I went through a weekend’s worth of training and talked a great deal about what short-term service really means. I am inherently uncomfortable with short-term service, just as I’m a bit uncomfortable with missionary work and charity and all of those other one-sided things which only reinforce the differences between those with built-in privilege and those without. I worry that short-term services takes more from a community than it gives. I worry it is imperialistic, I worry it is oversimplified, I worry it is so far removed from the realities of community empowerment and grassroots change that it is nearly unidentifiable as true social change. And most of all, I worry it is stealing from the community. It is taking their stories and walking away with them without ever speaking of those stories again. It is internalizing the experience for ourselves yet never sharing it with others, keeping it locked inside where it does nothing except stir up our own emotions.
In the midst of these worries, when I fear all we’ll be doing is stealing from the community, I am reminded.
What happens on this trip means something. But what happens thereafter means the world.
I want these participants to be changed by their experience. I want them to be angry, I want them to be upset, I want them to want to learn and read and share and be enraged by their peers’ apathy. I want them to think about their own privilege. I want them to think about the gifts they’ve been given and what it means to live a life that matters. I want them to consider turning away from some of the popular career tracks at our university, the financially remunerative ones, in favor of pursuing something that truly speaks to these participants.
God’s calling for you is where your heart’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Of course I hope for safe journeys and a smooth itinerary and meaningful group reflection. But really, my hope is for my participants…that they will find sustained personal growth and change and seeing a place – a calling – a way to live a life that matters.