“We want to do another play program in your slum. But this time there are students from England coming. It’s important that we are able to do this in your slum because we’ve done it there before and you helped make the program proceed in a more organized fashion. We’d appreciate it if you could bring the same students that participated last time. Will you be able to support us?”
I was a bit confused by the request, but glad to help. The guy on the other end of the line was part of a local NGO that matched up theater students with groups of children in the slum. It was a fun way to serve the community using their own skills and passion.
The first time this NGO had run a program with my students, local college youth spent eight days giving our kids a chance to express themselves. Games and activities involved shouting, singing, memorization, and low-pressure acting. The final 2-3 days focused around preparation for a short play the kids acted out together, with a party afterwards. It was a meaningful experience, a break from the academic nature of the classroom, and potentially helped some kids begin to feel that they had a voice.
I was interested to see what this new session would bring. I wanted to give a new group of students the chance to participate, but was willing to obey the request and bring back the previous students, curious as to what a more advanced class could bring. Would the British students be teaching the next level of activities? Using a more developed pedagogy? As they originated from the most famous university in the world, I imagined that their skills and training were quite advanced, and was curious to see what they would have to offer and how it would work in our context.
The kids and I eagerly waited for the first day of the program. When the British students arrived, I cringed. Style in the West changes rapidly, and I’m sure what would have been risqué in my college days is normal on a college campus now. But to wear stuff like that in a conservative slum over here? I didn’t know whether there had been a failure of communication between the NGO and the British students, or if the local NGO themselves were unfamiliar with community norms (these students, like most theater majors in our region, were generally much wealthier and more liberal than the average slum dweller). I was able to discreetly pass a message to one of the staff that it would be helpful if the British students wore something more culturally appropriate the next day, lest they reinforce stereotypes about Western women and risk giving the program a bad name in the slum as an inappropriate/corrupting influence.
What the British kids lacked in clothing, they made up for in enthusiasm. They jumped right into the activities and their excitement rubbed off on the students. I was disappointed, though, to see that they ran basically the same activities that the local theater students had run before them. The only substantial differences were that there were White faces in front instead of local ones, and everything had to be translated from English. It struck me that the locals who had previously led the program were now reduced to translators. But I had hope it would progress to more in the coming days.
The opposite happened. Though my kids had been through the program before, the British students just kept repeating the same activities. In fact, the time necessary for translation meant they progressed slower than before. This time it was also shortened, as a couple days of instruction were cancelled in the middle so the foreigners could participate in tourist-type activities around the town. On most days only some of the foreign students came, as others chose to hang back wherever they were staying or do something else. At least one British student never once led an activity that I saw, preferring to take pictures instead.
Due perhaps to the slower progress and missed days, the kids didn’t even practice for a play, much less perform at the end.
Several days before they left, I tried to bridge the disconnect I felt between what the British students thought they were doing (as related to me in responses to questions I had asked them), and the impact they were really having. I approached several of the students, gave them my email, told them I wanted to talk about their program and our slum. I passed out my card as well to make sure they had multiple ways to reach me. I prepared for the fact that the ensuing conversations might be challenging.
It never happened. Not one of the British students ever got in touch with me to find out what impact their program really had.
By some measures, this little excursion into our slum was a “good” project. Rather than doing something they were untrained to do (like, say, sending law students into the slum to build houses), these theater students were at least in their appropriate field. They were partnering with a local NGO run by nationals rather than trying to do it all on their own from the outside. The kids in our slum had fun, and loved being a part of the project.
On the other hand…
Why were British students flying across the world to repeat activities that local students had already been running before they got there?
Did the British students know that the local students who brought them could lead those activities as well or better than they could? Had they ever asked? Why didn’t they even once encourage a local student to lead an activity, to see how they might do it differently?
Did the British students know that because the local students wanted them to have a “positive” experience, they had ensured that they taught in a controlled situation, and thus were working with kids who already knew the program at the expense of new or needier kids who could have gotten more out of the experience?
Did the British students know that less got done during their week than would have gotten done if they were not even there?
I can’t answer those questions, because not one of those students ever started a conversation with me (or anyone else who lived in our slum). Our only conversations were instigated by myself, and I was the only one who asked any questions.
To this day I wonder who the British students thought were benefiting from their excursion. When they first came they had described their trip as an opportunity to do service. But if the kids got less of an experience than they would have had the British students never came, how could it still be called a “service”?
I’ve often heard the truism about such short-term experiences, “the person who is serving benefits more than the person who is being served.” In this case, however, I was unsure whether even that wisdom was true. How did the British students benefit from coming across the world? Their experience in a slum was limited to a controlled environment, an empty room with 20 or so kids who were under their authority with the help of local staff. They didn’t observe any community life, didn’t visit anyone’s homes, and didn’t ask any questions about any of those things that I could tell.
When they returned home, they might have had positive feelings like, “I was able to make a difference” or “I’m a good person because I did a service.” They might have warm feelings about children across the world that hopefully could lead them to feel more positively connected to children from other countries and situations (then again, Kris Kobach’s bio suggests that even that result isn’t certain).
Could we hope for more than positive feelings from such an investment?
I’m also curious to know what the NGO who hosted the British students thought they were doing. They were well aware that we were using the same students, doing less, going slower. They knew how much better they could have run the same activities, and how much of their time was wasted in translation. So what did they get? Did the British students initiate and the local students felt like they had to oblige? Or did the local students initiate because they were using the “service opportunity” to get something out of the British side, perhaps funds or helpful Western relationships? I can’t know the answer to those questions –it’s been more than a year since that NGO brought those British students to our slum, and they’ve never been back. My kids miss them, I’ve tried to invite them to return, but for whatever reason it hasn’t been able to happen. There was zero follow-up after the British student visit.
For this story, the questions I want to highlight are:
- Before you go on a trip to “do service”, ask yourself: Are you doing something that someone else who is already there can do as well or better?
- Does your activity divert local human resources in order to support you? If so, are you providing a meaningful benefit to the local community that offsets this loss on their part?
- How will you know what impact your activity has on the local community? Do you have a way to measure the outcome? Who would you ask?
- If you are going primarily for your own benefit, are you honest about that to people you speak to about the endeavor? Do you portray it as a service experience or as a learning experience?
- If it is a learning experience, what are you doing to maximize that? What can you realistically learn from the experience? Are there ways in which you can enhance the learning experience, possibly at the expense of putting your own “service” front and center?
- If you do learn something, how will you make use of that learning going forward? How will you benefit the people who sacrificed their time and gave a piece of their lives to provide this benefit for you? And no, “being more grateful for what I have” is not a sufficient answer if nothing actually changes in anyone’s life.
If every short-term service opportunity took those questions to heart, it might have a radical impact.