I’ve compared my work from this summer and last summer quite a bit throughout my blog posts. Last summer I worked for a non-profit organization in Honduras that initially worked to transplant families and individuals living in a riverbed slum to a safer environment with collectively built houses. They now build school infrastructures in poor communities and run programs for orphans and other low-income children. While this all sounds good, it was impossible for me not to be critical at every turn while I was working for them. Mostly white, American volunteers were doing most of the construction work, which they were not trained to do. The communities often had to stare at a half finished school until another group of volunteers arrived during the next winter, spring, or summer break. We didn’t even have to apply for visas to go there, while thousands of Hondurans attempt to cross into the US every year on an extremely dangerous journey. As one Honduran explained to me, they’re often thrown out “like dogs.” Students who spent hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and volunteer fees were working with people who made little over $100-$200 per month. It all seemed so wrong, and I was unable to avoid feelings of hopelessness and depression during my time there.
Work in Honduras
I feel as though this summer in India helped me to balance both critical and positive thought. As I look back over my experiences, they weren’t entirely different from those of last summer. The workers in the factories made low wages (when we went for a nice dinner out, my bill would add up to a week’s worth of their salaries), as college students we were probably not qualified to do the work that we did, and the longer we were there, the more we learned about layers of social issues affecting them, including oppression, coerced sex work, domestic abuse, and more… However, I realized that my ability to be critical of all these things wouldn’t get me very far. It would be ignorant to be overly optimistic, but I knew that getting bogged down in the issues would make me useless to the situation. I also learned to focus on a specific issue—anemia—and keep my sights on the narrow, small issues that I could impact. Further, I learned not to look at small, positive progress and dismiss it as unimportant. While I could say that handing out bananas, a few months of iron tablets and deworming pills was probably fairly insignificant in the scope of human need around the world, it was still something. Keeping in mind that it was a fairly small impact and making goals to return to India and do something more substantial has turned out to be very different from rejecting the value of my work and its potential.
Enjoying work, coconuts, and an enormous opportunity to learn about the lives of migrant workers on our trip to Orissa
As I come back to Penn, I’ve been thinking about how to employ these lessons to my every day environment. Obviously they come in handy when I do community service or learn about similar social issues all over the world. But they also help me to tone down my tendency to over-critique and criticize right on campus. I could write quite a few blog posts on how I feel about Penn’s stress levels, pre-professionalism, and lack of contribution to the Philadelphia community. But, this semester I’m trying to focus on the good parts—the awesome class discussions I have in my anthropology classes, the technology available to me in my science lab, the passionate people that surround me—and I’ve been a whole lot happier. I’m looking forward to seeing where I can take this in the future.