Beyond Good Intentions: Evaluating the Ethics of Volunteering & Performative Activism

By Honduras Program Associate, Madison Dutson

Going on a brigade is so much more than recruiting, fundraising, and remembering to pack mosquito repellant. Engaging in international volunteering comes with a responsibility to educate ourselves and approach communities with humility. As we strive to be global citizens, it is important to recognize history and constantly examine our own motivations. 

Here are good questions to ask yourself as you begin this reflection: 

  • Why am I interested in volunteering abroad and working in this specific country? 
  • Why am I interested in volunteering specifically with Global Brigades?
  • Have I studied the history and culture of the community I plan to work with thoroughly enough? 
  • To what extent am I aware of the underlying causes of the lack of development in my brigade country?
  • Are there any pre-existing perceptions I may have toward people in this specific country that I can work to unlearn?
  • What have I posted on social media about my brigade and why?
  • How would I want to be represented if I was a member of this community? 
  • How will my brigade impact my behavior after I return home?
  • What am I doing to volunteer locally and domestically to promote similar initiatives?
Carnegie Mellon volunteers in 2009 in Trapichito Farm with Don Alejandro.

A helpful article on this topic, The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems, by Courtney Martin, is a great place to start when working to dismantle unproductive mindsets toward communities we make an impact with. As Martin puts it, “If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course, you’d be attracted to problems that seem urgent and readily solvable.” So is she suggesting that everyone should simply stay in their lane and turn a blind eye to challenges people are facing around the world? Of course not. What she does point out is that if we are going to embark on this endeavor of global citizenship, we need to be informed about the complexities of the challenges we are seeking to improve, and always defer to local expertise. It also means we should not be joining the movement because it is flashy, exotic, or will look good on our social media. Instead, we should seek opportunities to promote sustainable, locally-informed, and community-led efforts that are rooted in partnership.

So how do we go about shifting our tendencies away from saviorism and performative activism? Firstly, we must educate ourselves. Question the narratives you were taught and examine your own biases. Read honest and accurate online articles and books that address the role of western countries in the southern hemisphere, preferably written by citizens of the country itself instead of from a western perspective. Understanding even the basics of this complex history, from colonialism to current economic policies, allows you to recognize the culpability of various parties that perpetuate inequality throughout the world. These are big issues, there is a lot to learn! Don’t be intimidated by the weight of these topics. Have meaningful discussions with your fellow volunteers, sit with it, and challenge yourself to be part of the solution.

Volunteers from the 2019 Texas A&M Engineering Brigade with the Water Council President in Corral Quemado, Honduras.

With accurate context for the challenges you will see in a community you are volunteering in, you are less likely to place unfair judgments, jump to conclusions, or write yourself in as the hero. As you return home, make sure you continue to portray your experience this way. Whether it is on social media or in your medical school application, you should not use poverty to promote yourself. Remember that as you communicate about your brigade, you not only are sharing your story but also the story of those you worked with. Always promote dignity and reflect an accurate narrative of your contribution. Inspired by Radi-Aid’s Social Media Guide, we use GB’s 3 C’s to promote ethical photo sharing: 

  1. Consent: Ask if you can take a picture and use it on social media.
  2. Content: What is your motivation for posting this? Does it accurately reflect your experience?
  3. Caption: Avoid oversimplified generalization and stereotypes. Know the name and story of the people in your photo and include them in your post.

Finally, it is important that your work in promoting equity does not start or end with your brigade. Once you’re home, you’re not finished! Going on brigade should not be treated as a box you check off or just a line on your resume. We hope that after you return to your home country, you continue to work toward resolving health and economic disparities domestically and abroad. Find ways to get involved locally, continue to donate to organizations that resonate with you, speak up when you hear racist language or stereotypes.

Community members at the Standpipe Commissioning in Immuna, Ghana.

Let’s continue the conversation! Find more resources on Ethical Volunteering in our brigade preparation guides, share your #MyGBStory on social media, and check out other articles on our blog about ethical volunteering. Our goal as an organization is to ignite the world’s largest student-led movement for sustainable development. Without our amazing volunteers, this would not be possible! Thank you for all you do to support Global Brigades and our partner communities. We hope as you prepare for your brigade, or reflect on your experience, you will use the questions and calls to action in this article to grow as an ethical volunteer and global citizen.

Global Brigades

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