In my high school, to graduate students were required to complete 180 hours of community service. Typically, students would volunteer at the food pantry, blood drives, or our local summer camp. While trying to complete my 180 hours through a camp, a classmate of mine mentioned how they got theirs done. They said they participated in a week-long service trip rebuilding homes in impoverished parts of West Virginia. The student said it changed their life and was such an amazing experience. This organization was through our local Catholic Church and was fairly popular in our town and neighboring towns as well. Having not heard any bad things about this service trip, I signed up with a couple of friends in the summer of 2017.
Our location was in Kentucky, and we learned it had the 5th highest poverty rate. As middle-class students from Boston, Massachusetts it was a culture shock. We stayed at the local high school gym with air mattresses and were ready to meet our assigned family and help rebuild their house that was damaged by heavy rains and flooding. The way this organization worked is that every summer they chose a different state than before. Then, each week a different group came into help. At the week’s end, students left and simply returned back to their regular lives.
This experience was eye-opening and I have a special place in my heart for the loving and generous family we helped out. However, it wasn’t until college I realized how problematic it was. The reason I did this service trip in the first place was that I have always been passionate about social justice and making a positive impact in any way I can. This is what led me to apply to be a Periclean Scholar at Elon University. The Periclean Scholars Program is a cohort-based program that focuses on forming mutually-beneficial partnerships locally and abroad. Each cohort has a specific country of focus. My cohort of ‘22 was assigned Ghana. After being accepted freshman year in 2018, we spent the Spring semester learning about inclusive and sustainable partnerships. To understand this, we first had to understand the savior complex that is intertwined with service trips.
Let’s use my experience for example. Before arriving in Kentucky, we had no prior introduction to the community we were working with. We did no research and did not speak to any representative from the area. We went in completely blind, just knowing that we were in a position to help the less fortunate, with no acknowledgment to the local community. Although the service trip was to benefit the community, it was focused on making our experience pleasant. How can someone truly help a community without speaking to the people that live there? You can’t…. at least not effectively. Since we are not apart of that community, we will never understand the problems that they face, especially if we don’t ask them.
The next issue is the longevity of this service. Each group is only there for a week, picking up where the last group left off. This in itself is problematic. This shows you that the organization values giving as many students this “life-changing experience” rather than creating real connections and trust with the people they want to help. Even though the whole program is the full length of summer, with new groups circling in each week, it is impossible to create a solid foundation and understanding of the community. In addition, three months is not long enough to create actual change. Our job was to fix the damage that the weather caused the houses, but after three months, what happens then? The work we did was not sustainable to benefit their future. This community needed a partnership to help find long-lasting solutions, not a quick fixer-upper. Dani Kercher from iAct says it best, “When there is no effort on the part of organizations to communicate with the leaders of the community to better understand their concerns, organizations are not creating community-driven solutions but rather pushing solutions that they feel are best”.
This is just one of the many problematic service trips that young people partake, and I can’t write about service trips without including the White Savior Complex. Have you ever seen a white teenager post about their amazing trip abroad with pictures with African, South American, Middle Eastern, or any POC children? This, combined with the experience I just described, is the white savior complex. This complex is when a white person helps a POC but in a more self-serving way, participating in the experience to make themselves feel good, rather than make any sustainable connections and long-lasting relationships. You may have seen this white savior trope in popular movies like The Blind Side. It is important to note that yes, many people have good intentions, but we still need to be held accountable for these experiences, even if at the time it seemed right.
It is not to say that any service trip you may have been a part of is problematic, but it is important to reflect on past experiences and look out for them in the future. I wish I had gone about my experience differently and chose to do more research, but I use it as a learning experience and inspiration to not make the same mistake again. With that being said, through being a Periclean Scholar I have learned the importance of mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships. It requires a lot of research, preparation, time (way more than three months), and communication. The key is to know that you will never completely understand a community and the problems they may face but to truly listen to their knowledge and experience.