Written by Harumi Harakawa, former Global Brigades Program Intern and Volunteer
A kind and wise mentor completely changed my perspective on service abroad with one simple sentence, “local health is simultaneously global health”. This is not to say that global aid is pointless and we should all be confined to work within our own countries to fight for equality that way. And I am certainly not saying that it is impossible to engage in work abroad without invoking a savior complex. These two forms of service should not be thought of as mutually exclusive, but as two halves of a culturally aware and ethically-oriented, whole volunteer.
Global and local community service are inevitably related by the threads connecting countries and cultures in our modern day, and are meant to enrich each other. The sentiment of taking experiences gained around the world, and bringing them back to your community as a way to deepen your interactions with others is not a new idea, but how can it truly be applied?
If you’re anything like me in college, you are in a new community, a new city, and bouncing from one student involvement meeting to the next – precariously relying mostly on coffee to fuel the constant movement. I moved across the country for undergrad without any idea of what kind of city Boston would be: in my mind, the idealized image of a city life and a winter wonderland, against the hot, suburban backdrop of where I had grown up in Texas. I spent a significant portion of my Freshman year trudging through the snow to the far side of South End very week to the same isolated and cold street lined with warehouses, to the More Than Words Bookstore. Over that year, I was forced to be uncomfortable and adaptable, and inadvertently set the foundation for the service experience I would have with the Global Medical Brigades Chapter at my university.
As a Chapter Leader my junior year, I focused on building a relationship with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, where our Chapter was able to form an opportunity for our members to participate in group weekend volunteering. Through the crafts made, the board games played, and exchanges shared, our members were able to connect over the common experience of entering a vulnerable community with humility and openness.
The camaraderie and sense of teamwork we formed throughout the year, combined with an ethical service mindset prepared us to properly step into the rural, indigenous community of Ipeti Embera in the Darien region of Panama. Throughout the week-long brigade, we engaged in critical discussions and built connections with local staff to paint a valuable and rich image of the experience on brigade, that could then be taken back to campus to spread awareness for Global Brigades and the global development movement.
As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to be aware of the initiatives you are taking part of and the communities you choose to volunteer in. And the first step is being aware of prevalent issues, and the ways to interact with those who are affected by them. Challenge yourself as an individual to go out into your local community and get to know a different part of town. If you’re a Chapter Leader, take the initiative to plan group volunteering days with local service organizations your members would be interested in working with. Whether you are participating, leading or just interested in volunteering with your Global Brigades Chapter, I would urge you to also search volunteer opportunities that are right at your doorstep.
In or out of the brigade experience, there is a world full of need and richness of cultures to learn from, so surround yourself with people who will challenge your way of thinking and empower you to empower others.