As Spring Break nears, I can feel my excitement levels rising. Normally, I would be counting down the days until I can enjoy the company of my three favorite things again (my family, friends and cats) but I won’t be returning home until the end of May. Instead, I’m packing my bags, fleeing the bipolar weather of Ithaca and heading to Nicaragua.
But this isn’t just a regular spring break trip. As a member of Bridges to Community at Cornell, I have the opportunity to spend 10 days in Nicaragua doing service work. In order to go on the trip, I’m required to take a two credit class, DSOC 4500, that prepares students — the same ones going on the trip — for the stay in Nicaragua. We have different lessons on service-learning and guest lectures about the current events and history of the country itself. This year, we will be doing work in Siuna, Nicaragua.
Before I committed entirely to Bridges, I was wary of what this trip would entail. Going on a service trip abroad was always something that I wanted to do, but I was always skeptical of the different programs that were available. It was not uncommon at my high school for students to go on “service trips” to various places during the summer. Social media would be bombarded with photos of them volunteering, playing with children and exploring the exotic land they were visiting. But the people who came back from these trips seemed quite unaffected — they came back with photos, souvenirs and a warm, fuzzy feeling that they had saved a country from their disastrous and complicated problems. Maybe some people were in fact leaving a meaningful impact, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the majority were doing more harm than good.
One of the first articles we were asked to read in the Nicaragua class was “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” In this article, Courtney Martin explains how young, privileged people in America attempt to create a life of meaning by partaking in service work abroad. They view the problems afflicting people in these countries as “readily solvable” and “urgent,” while ignoring problems at home. More than a million nonprofit organizations have been formed in the United States, focusing on helping people abroad. Martin, however, does not discredit working abroad entirely. She reminds people that they should go for the right reasons. The motivation behind working outside of the United States should be realizing the complexity of issues abroad and desiring to work on something difficult. Working abroad means putting down roots and creating something long-lasting and worthwhile.
Bridges to Community is a program that, in Martin’s words, has put down roots. The community stays in Nicaragua long-term. One of the worst things a program can do is come into a country, impose their own solutions and leave. At Bridges, different volunteers may come and go (such as our Spring Break group will do), but there are core groups who stay. One of Bridges to Community’s core values is “shared work,” emphasizing that it is not a one-sided effort. They are not imposing their ideas on the people, but working alongside them and taking into account what they need. Furthermore, it isn’t simply about the house, the latrine or the stove that they’re building; it’s the ability for people from different cultures to come together and create something significant and long-lasting.
One of the most important things you can do before going on a service trip is to research the area you are visiting. Knowing the history of the country, what the people have gone through and the current issues and problems helps you attempt to understand what your role is. The keyword is attempt. Unless you are originally from the area or have close connections to it, you are always going to be an out outsider nonetheless. There are things you will never know about the people living there or the problems going on that you must learn to accept. But being cognizant of your role is the first step in your ability to help. Many times, it is not the individual’s problem but the service program itself. Many programs are focused on relief efforts — giving direct aid to the people. In some cases that can be helpful, but many problems are systemically based. Merely giving people resources will not help them in the long-run and may cause additional problems as a consequence. The PlayPumps in Africa are a good example of this. They were originally installed as a sustainable pumping system powered by the play of children. However, most of the time the PlayPump was not a viable solution. It only worked in very specific types of situations where there were large supplies of high-quality groundwater close to the surface. The problem is that there is actual water scarcity in many parts of Africa, thus the PlayPump was left completely useless. Furthermore, when the PlayPump broke and the people who installed it left, the inhabitants did not have enough knowledge or resources to fix it.
There is nothing wrong with genuinely wanting to do service work abroad. It’s disconcerting to imagine what the world would be like if people didn’t have the curiosity and desire to help these countries in the first place and remained focused on only solving the problems within the United States. Although there are ongoing problems in the United States, the majority of us are people who have the ability and resources to help others. It’s one thing to question how much our service work is helping and making the needed improvements and another to believe our work is entirely ineffective and deciding to ignore the problems altogether. Living in the United States, where we are lucky to have the resources and freedoms that we do, should not make us sheltered. But going into countries acting as if we are entitled and superior is the wrong way to go about it.
Forming connections with the people we are working with as well as knowing and understanding the history and current issues of the country makes service trips worthwhile. It is not for the people, but with the people.
Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.