A Response To Shay Hurst

Hudson Photo 13

With Community Leader Ana Maria in MonteCristo

Dear Shay,

Lots of perspectives you can take on voluntourism. You have certainly presented one here (http://shayhurst.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/voluntourism/) , and I enjoy reading it. Let’s me glance into the consciousness of another person getting connected to this space for the first time.

Individuals want to make a difference in this world. And there are countless ways to do that. One way to make a difference is to travel and volunteer. What folks are struggling with is the “How” – how do we connect travel and volunteering in a way that empowers communities, affords us a chance to come to a greater awareness of our interdependence on this ever-smaller planet, and supports the transition from socio-economic isolation to socio-economic interdependence. In my opinion, voluntourism is “an” approach to this process. It may not be the “best” approach, but it has some interesting features which afford us a chance to come into contact with philosophical and consciousness-raising questions about our role in the ever-changing, master motion picture that is life on this planet.

When you travel, there are some good rules of thumb to follow – try to buy local, stay local, and keep your footprint to a minimum. Try to ensure your money stays within the context of the local economy as best you can. This is “tourism.” When you volunteer, if this is what you want to do, let it be your additional contribution to the destination, a sign of your gratitude. Don’t think you are going to change anything. You won’t. But, you will change yourself. And, maybe, just maybe, when you do that, you will change the world. Who you are, after all, is part of this world. Pick up a piece of trash from the sidewalk when you are walking through a destination – it is a voluntary act, right? If you want to help a business translate its website into English, because you are fluent in Spanish, go for it. If you want to share another skill or talent you have with a group that is interested in benefiting from that skill or talent, let it rip. Be selective, of course, but let it rip!

There is nothing inherently wrong with voluntourism. It is the “how” that really matters. And what we can do is continually work to improve the how. We don’t need to kill off voluntourism any more than we need to kill off fast food – just help fast food serve more vegetables and fruit by going there and eating a salad. If voluntourism can assist the tourism industry in considering a new way of delivering its product and service in a community, because people like yourself are demonstrating another way of traveling, we all benefit, right?

We all have choices. When we go out of our way to tell people what is wrong with something, we really don’t give them a chance to make a choice. If we go out and show them how something can work, when you really put your mind to it, we give them a choice. I was able to do it, maybe you can to, or not – but you at least have a choice.

Many people spend a lot of effort, at least where voluntourism is concerned, telling people why it is wrong, why it violates communities, etc. Okay, you win… well, you win the fact that you made your point. Did you do anything to improve voluntourism? Did you do anything to support that community that really wants to build a dry pit toilet so they can cut down on malaria or dengue fever brought on by standing water from their current refuse approach? Probably not. But you made your point.

I spend every day of my life trying to improve voluntourism – not by beating it with a stick, but by coaxing it to a new level of awareness and providing it with tools, knowledge, and insights to become better and better. I will be the first to point out its flaws, but we all have so many warts; it seems absurdly redundant to remind ourselves of this with any kind of vehemence or vitriol. Would you want someone to come and say: “Holy Crap, look at the warts you have” in the places you can’t see, for example. Nobody benefits from that approach. Blame voluntourism, blame it for having warts – gigantic, ugly warts. Or help it discover those warts in a way that affords it a chance to remove those warts. You can spend an equal amount of energy helping voluntourism discover what it is doing well, while reminding it that it still has a long way to go.

Living here in Bolivia, it is easy to see my own warts. But I am seeing that there is something underneath those warts, waiting to come forth, once those warts are removed. You wouldn’t decapitate someone because they have warts, right? Voluntourism doesn’t need a guillotine; it needs some liquid nitrogen applied with concentration and skill, or a scalpel handled in the same manner. If you make the choice to do so, you can be exactly that by demonstrating a way of doing voluntourism that takes into consideration all of the things you hold dear, and you can write about that, and share it with others. Or not. The beauty is that you have a choice. And that is what I love about voluntourism. If you do it, how you do it, or not – it will always be a choice. For me, I can’t travel any other way. Perhaps one day that will be the case for you, too.

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