Guest Author Mason Matthews is a lover of movies, history, politics, comedy, pizza, and travel.
Over the weekend, several of my friends on Facebook have shared an article titled "The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism”. It now has over two million views and has been published on The Huffington Post. There are several issues that I have with the piece, the title alone being a topic worthy of criticism. One of author Pippa Biddle's central arguments is that as a "5'4" white girl", she simply has little use working in the developing world due to her biological attributes. She attempts to appear as a pragmatist by ostracizing herself from foreign work due to perceived limitations emanating from her stature, race and gender. But doesn't this violate the very basic principle of social equality, that we all have something valuable to contribute to humanity regardless of societal norms, which is preached by self-professed civil rights and feminist activists?
Pippin recounts her experience as a volunteer in Tanzania with a group of 14 white girls and "1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania." This statement, as well as the title of the article, downplays the contribution that people of color are increasingly providing abroad. She neglects to write about the large numbers of Hispanic, African and Asian Americans who sign up every year as volunteers for non-profits, missionary trips and voluntourism programs. Considering that the one black girl on the trip was perceived as much of an outsider to the Tanzanians as the white volunteers, mentioning the races of the "little white girls" at all appears forced and unnecessary. A more befitting title for the article could have been "The Problem with Little American Boys, Girls and Voluntourism".
While in Tanzania, Pippin's group was given the task of constructing a library. She explains that their construction skills were limited and how every night "the men" (it's unstated whether they were fellow volunteers or Tanzanian workers) had to rebuild their shoddy work. I wasn’t in Tanzania with Pippin’s organization, but based on her article, I would attribute their failed project not towards the race or gender of the volunteers, but rather to the fact that it consisted almost entirely of high school students with limited work experience. Pippin acknowledges her lack of skills for the job she was assigned, admitting "I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries." From my personal experiences abroad, we did have individuals with these skills, but we also had many unskilled volunteers such as myself who worked together and accomplished extraordinary things.
Last summer, I volunteered with a non-profit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is one of the single poorest regions of the United States with living conditions comparable to that of the Global South. While serving in Pine Ridge as a college student, I was hardly a skilled laborer or working professional. However, I did have an open mind and willingness to work, which allowed me lend a hand in various projects around the reservation. Despite my lack of carpentry skills beyond middle school wood shop, under careful instructions by the non-profit’s staff and fellow volunteers, I was able to construct bunk beds for children that had been requested by a relative of the great Chief Red Cloud. I know little about gardening, but that knowledge was superfluous as I spent several hours turning mulch and killing insects on an organic garden operated by a progressive Lakota family. And although I'm not a lumberjack (despite my beard and closet full of flannel shirts), I ventured into the Black Hills and collected beetle infested trees for tribal elders to use as firewood during the coming winter. And it wasn’t just me, the young white male doing all the labor; the women actually outnumbered the men on our team and consistently toiled alongside us. One woman, who traveled to Pine Ridge all the way from Japan, had never used tools or performed manual labor in her life because it was taboo back home. Nevertheless, on the “Rez” she was a workhorse who contributed enormously to our collective efforts. Our team successfully completed the tasks we were assigned due to the coordinated effort between volunteers, organizational staff and the local community, all of whom came from varying ethnic, political and socioeconomic backgrounds to provide a better quality of life on the reservation.
The summer before Pine Ridge, I traveled to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with the United Methodist Church's Volunteers in Mission program. Arriving two years after the massive earthquake that rocked the country, I encountered a nation and people still suffering the traumatic ramifications of physical and emotional destruction. After arriving in Port-au-Prince, my ten member team of volunteers traveled north to the rural town of Leveque where we were the first mission team to arrive at the small Methodist parish since the earthquake. The local community's church had been badly damaged during the natural disaster and rested uninhabitable for two years. The small congregation began attending their Sunday worship services inside of an adjacent school constructed by the British Methodist Church that also served as our makeshift sleeping quarters.
As the first team to arrive at that particular job site, our job was to demolish the entire structure down to the foundation. My fellow volunteers and myself worked alongside a team of Haitian workers from the local community. Our binational team developed a close bond as we sledgehammered and carted off rubble with one another. In Haiti, as in Pine Ridge, the women worked right alongside the men at our construction site. At one point, I handed my hammer over to a female friend who I realized was much better at tearing down the walls than I had been. I wasn’t too disappointed though, considering it gave me more time to play soccer and practice my Creole with the kids who were also eager to practice speaking English. After a long workday, we would sit around with the Haitian people and share laughter, conversation and playtime with the children. Many in the local community were fascinated by us and were just as interested in our lives as we were in theirs. They personally invited us into their homes and on the final evening of our trip organized a surprise ceremony out of appreciation for our contribution to their hometown.
On a few occasions, however, our American crew and the Haitians workers disagreed on the best demolition methods for particular portions of the church. Two of our leaders, a firefighter and rancher from back home, had concerns over the safety of several walls that were coming down. Ultimately, we agreed to let the Haitian workers proceed with their more dangerous method of bringing down the large concrete blocks. Despite a near injury, fortunately nobody was crippled by the falling structure. We agreed to help with the Haitian workers more dangerous option because our team realized that despite our commitment to safety, the importance of the Haitians rebuilding their homeland and re-establishing their national pride was equally significant. When the last section of the church was to come down, we handed the hammer over to one of the Haitians who brought down the final wall with a mighty swing. The local community burst into applause as we shared hi-five's and hugs with our new friends.
In both Pine Ridge and Haiti, I believe we were successful because we worked alongside the people, not simply for them. We always acknowledged that we were guests on their beloved land. Our organizations didn't tell the people what they needed; we them what they wanted and helped provide the capital and labor required to accomplish those tasks. In Haiti, we also benefited from belonging to the same religious denomination. I’m actually not a Christian myself, and I would have never joined the mission team had our objective been to convert the local community to any particular faith or political ideology. The Lakota and Haitian people have been dealing with that bullshit for several hundred years and don't need any more of that nonsense. The paperwork that I signed before traveling to both Pine Ridge and Haiti included pledges to abstain from proselytizing and a commitment to respect the culture, religion and people in the regions I was to have the pleasure of visiting.
Pippin suggests in her article that as a result of her team's failure in Tanzania, "It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work." I agree with her proposed system of development, because the end goal for any international aid project should be self-sufficiency in the host country. I dream of the day that the Lakota and Haitian people no longer need help from outsiders and can provide for their own people. However, both regions of the world have incredibly primitive infrastructure and little to no employers or natural resources, not to mention corrupt government bureaucracies, conflicting visions of progress and the scars of a tumultuous history. Pippin’s proposition is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the only option towards progress in impoverished regions. The funds that myself and the other volunteers had raised for the trip paid the salaries of Haitian workers for two weeks and purchased construction materials inside of the country that greatly helped to stimulate the local economy.
Despite my objections to her article, I admire Pippin’s courage to confess, “It wasn’t the work that was bad. It was me being there.” She clearly expresses her belief that the work they were doing wasn’t bad, but that the problem is outsiders working in a society that they are not a part of has a negative impact on the country and its people. However, she does go on to say that international voluntourism “slows down positive growth” and “perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex” both internally with the volunteers and externally with people they’re trying to help. Based on my personal experiences abroad, I’d have to challenge her assessment.
My time spent volunteering in Pine Ridge and Haiti has made me a more empathetic, open minded and socially active individual. Whenever friends and family ask about my experiences, I make sure to explain that the people I had sought to help ultimately helped me in ways I could have never imagined. My travels have inspired me to take action in my own community, including feeding the homeless, donating a portion of my income to charity organizations and attempting to live a less materialistic driven life. I volunteered for others, but I also volunteered for myself. The major difference between Pippa’s worldview and my own is that I believe voluntourism benefits both volunteers and the people they seek to help, whereas she doesn’t believe the latter to be true. I like to believe that it makes a positive difference for everyone involved and would encourage anybody regardless of physical limitations, race, gender or nationality to travel the world and experience the wondrous people and places it has to offer. Volunteering abroad is mutually beneficial for everyone involved when practiced properly.