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Service trips require careful consideration

By Ariel Moyal

Members of BuildOn in Haiti this summer.  Photo courtesy of Ariel Moyal
Members of BuildOn in Haiti this summer. Photo courtesy of Ariel Moyal

This past summer, I went to Haiti, along with 20 other students, to help a community build a school. I say, “help a community build a school” purposefully. We did not go and build the school ourselves; the community was heavily involved in the entire process–everything from deciding the location of the school to picking teachers and providing laborers. This emphasis on community involvement was very important to me in deciding to go on the trip.

Service trips can be tricky territory. Historically, America has been involved in “humanitarian aid” motivated by the “white man’s burden.” Seeing ourselves as the savior of “uncivilized” man, we feel the need to make them more like us.

Despite the great strides we have made in decreasing our insidious imperialism, we still struggle with our perceived role as the world’s savior. To be fair, there is merit in trying to help disadvantaged, historically oppressed people. The trouble stems from our idea that stripping people of their culture and replacing it with our own is helpful. In reality it is extremely harmful.

Mission trips that have a primary goal of converting people are extremely harmful, especially with the history of forced conversion of native people. Admittedly, there can be good that comes out of these missionary trips.

Humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, often comes as a result. Unfortunately, this aid also results in dependence. There is no chance for self-sufficiency, only continued reliance. This is just another, seemingly benevolent, form of imperialism. For this reason, all service trips should be approached with care, making sure the purpose of the trip is clear.

I was nervous to go to Haiti, apprehensive that our trip would be deceptively like those mission trips of the past, trying to change a foreign culture to be more similar to our own. Eventually, I decided that the methodology behind the organization I was working with, one of sustainable improvement and breaking the cycle of poverty, was extremely important and necessary work.

Even despite the incredible importance of education, it is still necessary to work against a white or American-savior complex, and instead approach service as trying to stop or change past injustices, aware that the United States was one of the worst offenders in imperialism and perpetuating “white-man’s burden.” The growing popularity of service trips makes this awareness even more necessary.

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