In my last blog post, I talked about wanting this blog to be an honest telling of my experience in Zambia. So I’m going to talk about how much I struggled during my YAV orientation and how difficult it was to absorb what we were being told as volunteers.
The most difficult thing we heard was that, because we were coming from a place of privilege, we could harm the people we were trying to help. Many speakers and staff members throughout orientation talked about how we might believe that the act of volunteering made us “good white people.” Some of us might have the savior complex, believing that we were going into communities to improve lives. Some of us might believe that we were the only people who could make a difference. Some of us might think that our service year was about us being a catalyst for change. Our emphasis could be on what we wanted to accomplish, what we thought progress looked like, and how it would make us feel better about ourselves.
For me, it was disorienting to question my intentions for my service year. I had always wanted to do a YAV year ever since high school. It had been my dream for a long time, and I couldn’t deny that I had constructed a very idealistic (if not unrealistic) expectation of what my year was going to look like. I never once considered the possibility that I would harm the community I would be serving. I never once thought I was selfish for wanting to help others. But now I was questioning why I was committing myself to a community and moving to Zambia for a year.
Why was I going to Zambia if I was going to inevitably make mistakes and hurt the community I was there to serve? Why was I going to occupy space and consume valuable resources in the name of “service?” Was it truly selfish to think that you could make a difference in a community? If I wasn’t going to Zambia to help people or to make a difference, then why was I going? I had to grapple with these questions and many more throughout orientation. It took me a while to admit that I needed to destroy the image I had in my head of what serving others meant.
For now, I’m going to keep these four things in mind in an attempt to question what it means to come from a place of privilege while serving others:
- Observe and absorb. You are coming from a place of learning, not authority. Commit to acquiring knowledge and forming relationships above all else.
- How does your privilege impact the situation? Who actually benefits from what you’re doing? Is it the community and, if not, how do you change that?
- Challenge the narrative of white volunteers being “saviors.” Challenge the binaries you have been told by your culture. Learn to follow instead of lead. Learn to listen instead of talk.
- Be humble enough to admit that you know nothing. Do not act like you know what’s best for the community. Do not question their interpretation of growth or progress. You do not know what the community needs or wants.
I will be considering what it truly means to serve others throughout the year. I don’t have a definite answer for why I committed to this program, and I might never have one. Maybe I’ll even come to the conclusion that I don’t need to have an answer. Maybe I’ll be happy with the idea that this experience will be life-changing, and that is reason enough for doing it.