Many of my friends, when I told them I was going to South Africa, had responses that varied somewhat along the lines of “Oh, another white girl going to South Africa to ‘help’ the children.” Although this was in jest, “voluntourism” experiences like that happen all the time. However, this trip was not voluntourism and every member of it consciously made sure of that. The goals of the trip were to learn about the effects of apartheid and the history of South Africa, as well as sustainable development and responsible tourism. Additionally, my personal goals for the trip were to get out of my comfort zone and do my best to remain mindful. I definitely did these things in my time in South Africa. I can’t possibly choose between all of my meaningful experiences there without writing a short novel, so I will just write about one.
One of the most rewarding and most difficult experiences was our outreach work with the church in a township in Port Elizabeth. We were split up into groups and each group walked out to a site to bring food supplies and offer prayer in the form of song to a sick member of the community. My group went to the house of an important man in the church who became too sick to attend services. Everyone crowded into his small home and sang beautiful, melodic songs that moved the man (and everyone in the room) deeply. Essentially, the service was brought to him.I really saw how strong the community was and how they were able to lift each other up. Next, all the groups met up and we all went into an elderly sick woman’s home. I didn’t think we would all fit (there were probably over a hundred people) but the home was packed to the gills and surrounded by people. I was very close to the sick woman, at the center and I saw how she was moved to tears by the singing. I shook her hand before leaving (as we all did) and I really saw how the community treated everyone as equals and how everyone cared so heavily for each other. I am not a religious person and the situation was very difficult due to how intense it was, but I found it so beautiful. Learning to live with one’s own discomfort is the key to escaping one’s comfort zone and, for me, it allowed me to grow as a person.
There’s really no way for me to encapsulate how much this trip meant to me, except to say that it was life changing. That is not an overstatement, as it deeply affected how I view social justice, politics, racial issues, sustainable development, and privilege. I am so thankful for the experience.
Members of the church community walking down the street and singing.
The first home we went into, belonging to the elderly man who could no longer make it to church.
We headed up to Norrie State Park on Friday to set up camp and get out on the water in our kayaks, as well as play some games as a group. Saturday morning was somewhat of waiting game due to the rain but spirits stayed high and we got to explore a beautiful tributary of the Hudson River. By Sunday, after one last paddle, it was time to pack up camp and head back to NYC. Throughout the trip there were games and great conversation, which lead to a strong group dynamic both among the students and among the students and instructor team. My favorite part was watching this group development. I really enjoyed the trip; it was great to get out and paddle on the Hudson, and getting to a do so as a student leader was especially rewarding. The most surprising aspect of being a leader was how important it is to have backups in whatever plans one makes, because it’s difficult to predict how quickly people will move through an activity. Giles and I should have planned more games because the 10th graders moved through them very quickly, although it did end up working out. I used a variety of leadership styles throughout the trip, from being more authoritative to letting the students figure out the best way to do something for themselves. My favorite moments were not when me or Giles told the 10th graders what to do, but when they helped each other and learned from one another. This type of peer leadership is the kind that, I believe, leads to the most growth. However, in moments when time is of the essence or there are very specific instructions, it was better to be authoritarian (although it is definitely in my leadership philosophy to keep it to a minimum). For instance, on the night hike, it was better to give the students specific instructions instead of let them figure out what to do on their own, since it allowed to the group to enjoy the activity. I think one of my strengths as a leader was simply being aware of the limits of my own expertise and knowing that it is okay for students and instructors to figure things out together. Also, I think I did a good job of understanding that an activity that is easy for me might be difficult for someone else, recognizing those moments, and helping accordingly without being condescending. In the future, I could be more thorough in planning and also more assertive in times when I needed to give instructions. Overall, I wouldn’t have changed anything about my leadership on the trip or about the trip in general (even the rain!). I felt very well prepared and it was great to test out my leadership skills.
Several students, teachers, and myself went to a march in Washington in D.C. to take part in the Ferguson protests. Although there were a lot of very large protests in New York City that day, we travelled so far because we wanted be part of the Friends presence in D.C., where there were people from all over the country. We marched towards the Capital Building where there were many speakers, including Reverend Al Sharpton and the families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. It was moving both to hear the speakers and to see the crowd react in times of humor and sadness and determination. It felt so amazing to be surrounded by so many people who were so dedicated to making a change in the world.
Participating in the march really made me consider the movement itself and especially my role in it. As a white person, it is a slightly trickier role because I want to support the movement and yet I don’t want to detract from it. For instance, I chose not to chant “I can’t breathe” because white people can breath; our society was built to allow white people to breathe, so if I were to participate in that particular chant I would have felt as though I was devaluing the struggles of people of color in this country. Not to say that white people shouldn’t take part in the movement, but they should be there only to support and not to impose.
Last December, several of my peers and myself participated in a
three-day conference on human rights at the United Nations. It was an
incredibly valuable experience. We got to listen to and learn from
students from across the tri-state area, as well as Mexico, Canada,
and France. It is so important to get involved in these types of
opportunities because it puts us on the path to becoming future world
leaders. If we start thinking about our generation’s problems now, we
will be better prepared to deal with them in the future.
It was also a great experience because I got to meet people from so
many different countries and work with them to achieve a common goal
(making our human rights campaign proposals). It was really
interesting to see human rights not only from an exclusively American
prospective. We also all had very different backgrounds in the area of
human rights; some people had done many projects and some had barely
learned about them. Overall, the experience was very meaningful.