Learn from other countries, don’t ‘save’ them

Aidan Sheedy, Copy Editor

It’s human to want to help those less fortunate than you, but many skip a step when springing into action. It’s too often that after seeing people in need, an individual will ignore the perspective of the person in need. This is perpetuated even further with service learning.

The practice of service learning is when an institution seeks to aid people, often in developing countries. This idea has been around for centuries, and it only taught us one thing— that those in need don’t need a group of white people to swoop in and “save” them.

The trips consist of groups of privileged people building houses, churches and unsustainable facilities, and it needs to be abolished. The people that continue these types of programs can be known as white saviors. The theory of white saviorism, according to Savala Nolan, executive director of  Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, is an unconscious belief that a white person knows best or has more skills than individuals who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

This concept promotes institutional racism and only worsens the situation and conditions for the people in need. While yes, there may be better living conditions for the people after temporary improvements, this is only material and is easily manipulated. 

CBS Tampa Bay reported in 2013 that prominent non-profit Habitat for Humanity had foreclosed more than 10% of its 1,274 homes meant to relieve impoverished families. 

In contrast, 13 Quinnipiac University students and I touched ground in Guatemala on March 10 and we had one goal in mind—to learn. 

The class gathered to stay for 10 days at the Pavarotti Center for Education in San Lucas Tolimán. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum created the lakeside school in 2005 to promote peace and human rights after the cultural genocide that occurred during the Guatemalan Civil War. This trip was particularly special as the CEP and QU celebrated 15 years of global partnership and friendship.

Unlike service-learning trips, this venture was designed specifically to engage in cultural exchange. People with a white savior mentality will look to find a low-effort solution to a problem that causes their contribution to be virtually unhelpful. At the same time, this initiative promotes a two-way education.

This experiential learning is more culturally appropriate and allows marginalized people to have their voices heard. In service learning, volunteers immediately come in from a position of superiority because they have already molded the notion that they are there to “solve” the issues decimating that community. I am happy to say our trip was on a more level playing field.

In San Lucas Tolimán, 93% of the local population are Maya, meaning they are part of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. But instead of instilling our values and practices onto them, we collaborated in cultural solidarity. We visited their homes, ate their food, participated in their traditions and learned their language(s). We didn’t stay in a hotel or eat at fancy restaurants. We emerged ourselves in their way of life, respecting the intricacies that make the community so amazing.

Even within the San Lucas community, was the presence of a self-righteous white savior. Amid his death in 2010, the National Catholic Reporter published an obituary to Gregory Thomas Schaffer of St. Paul, Minnesota, who reportedly walked from there to San Lucas in 1963 to build a mission. While I believe this method of spreading religion is problematic in and of itself, Schaffer actually helped the local community directly for decades, but his American followers didn’t.

Even in the obituary are sprinkles of racism and ignorance. The article quoted Schaffer, referring to the area as a place where “they’re on the streets to get you.” That is the voice of a white savior. After years of “service” to the area, Schaffer and his followers describe an environment that simply does not exist. And while there are many levels to the obvious, the experience of hundreds of Quinnipiac students over 15 years will also tell you otherwise. Over the 10 days we were there, not once was there an absence of smiling faces waving to say hello.

The most powerful aspect of experiential learning was not only hearing about the systematic reasons for the area’s poverty and living conditions but the first-hand experience of talking to natives in their own homes. With interpreters and a representative of the CEP, the class was able to have conversations with people willing to open their homes to us in an effort to spread awareness of the denial of essential human needs and the rise of oppression in Guatemala against the Maya people.

In lighter moments, QU and CEP shared moments of laughter and fun in cultural solidarity through dance, school and food. In the classroom specifically, two QU students (with one that can speak Spanish) were assigned to a group of students for the school day and observed what the Pavarotti students learn, how the professors instruct and why there is a need for a school that emphasizes peace and learning your own history.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the pleasure of helping others, next time there is an opportunity to volunteer or study abroad, carefully choose the program that will not only benefit you but have a mutual impact on all involved.

You don’t need to build houses or create new programs to make a positive difference in the world. All it takes is some good listening and the ability to appreciate different cultures and peoples’ ways of life.

CORRECTION 3/27: A previous version of this story said Gregory Thomas Schaffer harmed the culture of the area he served, which is inaccurate.