“White-Kid Mission Trips.” I abhor this terminology. Back in high school, I was one of four “white” kids on my “white-kid mission trip,” and I’m only half white myself. To add insult to injury, “mission trip” implies that a belief in God is a prerequisite to doing any good for humanity. My “white-kid mission trip” took me and 10 other youth to Cambodia in the prime of our college-application-primping season. We were to tour the country some, deliver an array of school supplies, build a playground, and meanwhile get to know a local village. I accepted this mentality with unfaltering cheeriness. Of course we were going to be doing good for the world. How could we not be?
The vast major of our generation’s service trips are based upon an entirely flawed system and mentality. Youth are instructed to raise the funds to send them to a country in the Global South where they can “Be the change [they] want to see in the world.” They are told that they will make all the difference for the inhabitants of these impoverished areas, that they will change lives, and that their college resumes will look all the better for it. The youth are told that this trip is all about them—their experience and their impact. This is the first lie.
Building a playground, handing out shoes, or bibles, or food, will not change a village, or better humanity. In fact, the often-present evangelistic component of this service work is not only insulting; it is degrading and entirely ignorant of native religious and cultural traditions. In the words of Jolly Okot, “The best thing you can give an African child is an education. That will create a future leader. Not a pair of shoes.” The most kick-in-the-face, prominent issue with these service trips is the respect that they strip from the very people they are supposed to help. What does it relay to a community when you force-feed them handouts? It impresses upon them that they are incapable, and powerless of being an agent of change themselves. This is the second, most serious and reprehensible lie of them all.
I want a new system that is based upon honesty. We need a new system that is oriented around building mutual respect rather than bolstering the privileged savior complex. We need a system that is based upon community growth–education, peace building, rehabilitation, and public health. It is fruitless and degrading to lend our efforts to “fixing” these communities without first asking these communities what they would like to be fixed. That is precisely why I believe that the “cultural immersion” aspect of these service trips is one of the most vital components. This work needs to be about collaboration with cultural understanding at the foundation. These projects must be about asking what needs to be done, providing these communities the tools and hands that they need to stand up on their own, and then leaving. Organizations such as School the World and Charity Water are prime examples of this new model. The days of handouts must come to an end, and a new generation of hand-lending must begin. We must replace pennies with palms.
We, as a human race, need these youth-oriented service programs because they raise a new generation of educated, well-traveled individuals who understand the true power of a collaborative humanity.