When I was 18 years old, I went on a mission trip to Zambia, Africa with my college. Upon my return, I posted a picture to my Facebook page of me and some children from one of the orphanages. As kind and loving messages flooded my post I came across a message from an individual I did not know well. The comment was a link to an article about “Volunteerism and the White Savior Complex.” I clicked the link, read the article, and sat with my own thoughts for a minute or two.
Why would this person post this article to my page without knowing anything about me or my recent trip to Africa? Did my trip really “do more harm than good” like the article insinuated? Wasn’t doing something better than doing nothing? The post felt presumptuous and judgemental.
I proceeded to look back up at my screen and delete the comment off of my page.
Ten years and many (more) trips to Africa have passed since that day. I can tell you that reading that article did not stop me from trying to give love to a world that I always thought desperately needed it. I remained rooted in the belief that as humans, we are responsible for one another. What we do and how we do it really matters. But I can also tell you that it took many years of growth and experience to learn that there was so much I failed to consider that day I was sent that article.
The “White Savior Complex” remains a common trope that is said to suppress meaningful change and damage the welfare of beneficiaries. For me, however, the issue does not lie within the context of self-serving altruism or the white savior. Most writing on the subject makes the conclusion that volunteer trips are exploitative and inherently problematic. I do not believe that to be entirely true. I look at Crossing Thresholds, an organization rooted in Kibera for 12+ years, and it is clear to me that the issue is not about “volunteerism” exclusively, but rather about the ways in which a volunteer or immersive experience is arranged. Who is involved in conceptualizing the day to day activities? Is the community considered (and put first) at all times? What are the trip's goals? And last but not least when the week is over, will volunteers return? If so, when?
Receiving that article on my Facebook post that day was somewhat foreshadowing. I went on to write and defend my Masters Thesis in “Slum Tourism” and “Voyeurism” and have a much broader perspective and understanding of the dangers associated with short-term volunteerism (or volunteerism in general.) A volunteer trip that places the volunteer’s experience before the community’s needs IS dangerous. Failing to communicate with local leaders in order to better understand the needs of the community IS dangerous.
BUT, what the many articles on “white saviors” and “voluntourism” fail to consider are the organizations and the people who partake in cross-cultural immersion and (alongside local community leaders) make monumental contributions.
I have been involved with CT for nearly eight years and have both witnessed and lead trips to Kenya that are done so with purpose, with thought, and with attention. I have seen firsthand the impact that community leaders and young minds in Kibera have had on our North American volunteers. I have watched volunteers come back year after year and return home with a newfound commitment to the world around them.
It has been two and a half long years since we have been to Kenya. We miss our friends and are excited to hug them in person after such a long break. Over 50 people have made the decision to travel with us. They could be doing many things with their summer vacations, but we are glad they chose CT. We are glad they chose Kibera.
There are thousands of communities around the world that can benefit from a helping hand. While we can acknowledge some of the negative narrative around “volunteerism,” I would invite people to not stay in that place for too long. Instead, I would challenge them to consider what the world would look like if everyone took responsibility for one another. I hope we will move in that direction…
To my Kenyan Fam - See you in a few days!