When you are a long term volunteer (one year) and have hung out with former and/or current long term volunteers, conversations will often devolve into two arms. One conversation is about the materialism of everyone else and how people fall into the run-around life of chasing the American Dream and the next expensive car/house/country club/knife set/etc. which will lead to an emptiness in life, lesser meaning and it cycles ‘round and ‘round. The second conversation is really just a bitching session about how hard it is/was to ‘live like the poor.’ It has a follow up that leads to comparing who had it harder and scoffing at those who chose to apply for food stamps or had a phone in Darfur.
Not every conversation follows the two directions, but they occur at a high rate (in my experience). What strikes me about these conversations is that they become a sort of competition as to who is the bigger martyr. In doing so, the members of the conversation do not realize that their attempts to ‘relate’ to the poor place them on a self constructed pedestal. Yes, there is a level of elitism amongst volunteers and it is not a good thing.
The recognition of privilege is vital and I believe it can be lost when doing a long term service experience. White guilt plays a bit against things as well, but the privilege that allows a person to choose to live in ‘poverty’ is unique and one which must not be forgotten. Just because one volunteer lives in community and a stipend of less than $100 a month does not mean that he or she becomes an actual member of the community they are serving.
I have previously described this as two people living on either side of a river. Visiting takes place, but there are times that the river prevents one from passing to the other side and interactions must be taken from a distance. When it is OK to wade across, the visitor is the guest and will ultimately return to his or her home. An understanding of what is taking place in the community visited can be realized, but that does not make the visitor anything more than a visitor. Even years later, the visitor is still a visitor to the community.
What is unique is that we have a keen understanding of this when people move from one part of the United States to another. A New Yorker will stick out in Arkansas for her choice of dress, just as an Alaskan will sound different than a Californian. People will be embraced, but not being from the community presents a barrier that may never be overcome. For some reason, there is a thought that by going to live in a low income neighborhood of a US city or Kibera slum, the person can become a part of the community by ‘living like the people.’
There is something to be said for understanding the struggle of living in a close manner to the community. In many ways, I think the good outweighs the bad, but it does not make one person better than another and does not make a person poor. There must be a recognition that there is choice involved and the ability to leave at any time. If a volunteer is unhappy, uncomfortable, not safe, or sick; he or she can leave immediately and have access to whatever they need. For the people in the community being served, this is not the case.
Having been a long term volunteer in the United States and in Kenya, I am the first to talk about the positives that have come out of the experience. It would be unfair for me to criticize people who want to engage in volunteering when I have done it as well. However, I think that a large measure of humility is needed in the experience. It is easy to lose sight of the purpose and place oneself above everyone else.