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So You May Know
What Happens When "White Saviors" Are No Longer the Majority?"
A recent article by Teju Cole in The Atlantic has stirred my curiosity, amongst other things, regarding how we view the world of volunteering and helping. It seems that we still hold that the vast majority of helping is perpetrated by white Westerners. But what if this trend is changing? What if Techo.org had more than 400,000 volunteers from Latin America go through its programs in 2011? What happens if volunteering is no longer a North-South/West-East phenomenon? What if lending a hand is simply what we do, as human beings, wherever we are from, whatever the color of our skin, whenever we travel?
I have spent the last 20 minutes staring at the ceiling of my small room at Casa Kolping in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. My eating habits have been thrown off by a lack of access to proper cooking facilities, so my stomach is reminding me that human beings require a modicum of sustenance beyond one small meal at breakfast time. But my bellyaching on this particular day appears to be more directly tied to the consumption of information I have managed, or at least attempted, to digest – the variety of which is catalyzing a momentary bout of mental logorrhea.
It all started with a peak at the responsiblevoluntourist blog, which happened to mention an article by Teju Cole – “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” The article was posted on 21 March 2012 on TheAtlantic.com. Mr. Cole begins with a series of tweets, calling out some influential Americans who have come to be known for their philanthropy, although how Oprah Winfrey’s name got referenced given the title of his piece, I am still trying to grapple with. Nonetheless the article has had my attention for the better part of the last ten hours or so. Here are the introductory sentence to the article and the series of seven (7) tweets that Mr. Cole includes to begin his piece (to give you some idea as to why, perhaps):
I suppose for someone like myself, who has been a central figure in the global growth and development of voluntourism, and, presumably, from the perspective of Mr. Cole, the expansion of the “White Industrial Savior Complex,” I could take these remarks rather personally. But since I have focused on voluntourism, to use Mr. Cole’s term, “constellationally,” from the beginning of my involvement in it, I can remove myself from any personally-charged rhetoric, or retort for that matter, that could very likely follow.
Instead, I would like to share a very compelling story with all of you, something that I hold quite near and dear to my heart, and that is that voluntourism is fast becoming, not a symbol of “White Industrial Savior Complex” but a symbol of “Planetary Empathy and Sympathy Consciousness.” It is true, that the majority of subscribers to The VolunTourist Newsletter hail from countries where the majority of residents would fall under the category of “white” – although we know that most of these countries won’t be “white” for much longer. But what I really want to share with you are the voices of those who symbolize this new “consciousness” that is being born on the planet – a consciousness that speaks to what I think Terry Shadyac seeks to convey in his eye-opening “I AM” documentary.
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A Growing Contingent of Non-Whites and Non-Westerners Are Seeking to Volunteer
From Egypt come these words via Sony: “hello all im therapkist in althernative medcicine and specilist in massage and hypnotheraphy.. i intresting to travel duringthe 3 month summer this year where i can serve and giving a train to the nurses or whom in fields for helpong the poor, if you can help me to meet my wish will be greatful.. thank you”
From Brazil come these words via Camila: ”I want to get as much information as possible in order to plan my voluntourism trip! Soon!”
From Turkey come these words via Ozgur: “Dear Sir, My name is Ozgur. I am working for Amasya University International Relations Office in Amasya, Turkey. The University is one of the state university of Turkey. I worked for a tourism company for two years in Berlin, Germany and now I am resposible for the international (like Erasmus) and national (like Farabi) student exchange programm between European Countries and in Turkey.I have never read anything about voluntourism in Turkey. Turkey is a country between East and West and She has the youngest population in this region. I want to learn everything about the voluntourism all over the world immediately. I would like to be a good contact point in Turkey... Best regards,”
This is but a small sample of the caliber of individuals who are seeking to engage in travel that includes service. I doubt that they suffer from “White Industrial Savior Complex” (WISC) – I guess it’s possible of course. Maybe what they “suffer” from, however, is not being able to read about voluntourism in their native language. This is part of what had me staring at the ceiling for twenty minutes earlier in the evening. I kept thinking to myself: “We have to get this information into Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, and other languages. Voluntourism will always be seen as an extension of WISC until it has a resonant tone in other languages, ones rarely spoken by those who would be considered part of the WISC culture.”
Data to Change Even Our Current View of Voluntourism
What also had me staring at the ceiling was the juxtaposition of my reading of Mr. Cole’s article and the data released by the Adventure Travel Trade Association on Voluntourism this same day. By the numbers, 141 respondents, it tells us that voluntourism has found, and is finding, its way into the adventure travel market. 55% of respondents, for example, said that they “currently run a trip with a volunteer component.” Here is another interesting slide from the report you might want to consider:
So voluntourism is finding a home in a market space that has traditionally been a male-significant, demographically-speaking, more mature sector. Much could be written about this, but suffice it to say that it is indeed an important item to keep in mind – voluntourism in the adventure space is not-so-female-dominated and is not student-driven – two key items to disprove the generalizability of voluntourism as a female-centric, youth-oriented endeavor.
Is it possible that we are merely a few data points away from realizing that voluntourism may also be losing its WISC-slanted nature as well? One can only hope this will be the case. The Taurus in me is counting on it, in part because I definitely want to keep my perspective “constellationally” relevant.
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