How Can I Help?
How can I help? It’s a tricky question to unpack. As westerners, most of us are able to recognize the intense wealth gap amongst nations. We notice how differently people’s lifestyles are than ours- lives that don’t include amenities like air conditioning, running water, or functioning wifi. Often times we categorize people living in this environment as people “in need”. It’s one thing observing these varying lifestyles from afar, but it’s another when you actually visit different communities on the ground. If you are visiting abroad as an American or Canadian traveler, it’s easy to make assumptions about Mexico, especially its local life styles. After visiting local neighborhoods in Mexico, some tourists leave feeling sorry for the local families receiving a significantly lower income than most people in the US and Canada. Sometimes people leave their trips thinking: how can I help these families who are struggling to make ends meet with the more important question we should be asking is whether or not people in that community need or want our help. And if so, what can we do? Here are some tips for people grappling with these ideas.
As unfortunate as it is, this question is deeply complicated. On one hand, it is important to make a difference in communities we visit. On the other, it is crucial we respect the narratives and cultures of people with different life experiences. Situating us as individuals in the greater community can connect us in incredible ways. The moment that we can understand that this world is bigger than just us, is pivotal.
As humans, we are creatures of action. We do things- a lot of times without thinking. Sometimes we feel so helpless and so stuck when we see the amount of suffering in this world that we feel this urge to DO. Actions without careful analysis can be extremely dangerous. It’s common- we all know someone who has gone on a mission trip to Africa to build homes, or spent a week volunteering in an orphanage somewhere in the global south. You can find these personal testimonies of “changing” communities are all over social media. It’s obvious people are wanting to make a difference and create some sort of impact. What some people have difficulty understanding is often times the work they are doing is not sustainable. Giving money directly to someone who is at an economic deficit is not generating a continual income. It’s challenging to make an impact if you are only in a particular community for a short amount of time. When travelers actively think about the ways in which they can contribute to decrease the rigid lines of inequality, it usually is well intended. But sometimes we become overwhelmed with poverty, corruption, injustice, etc, and unfortunately leads us down a problematic road.
So how do we toe this fine line of helping and upholding respect? If we leave our preconceived notions aside, we have the opportunity to break stereotypes and humanize one another. Locals begin to debunk their own stereotypes about American and Canadians and vice versa. Although our origins and lifestyles are different, we can find commonalities through our passions. Cultural exchanges involve sharing between both groups: visitors and locals. These exchanges allow us to understand that entrepreneurs, business associates, and innovative engineers can be found anywhere- regardless of language, culture, or nationality. Tourists and locals can push each other out of their comfort zones to conceptualize new narratives. These interactions have the potential to take both parties to new heights. If we reframe the ways in which we think about effective change we can generate a deeper form of reciprocal impact for both parties.
Here is how we can begin to rethink the relationship between change and action. Below is list of steps you can take to further your efforts as a responsible tourist…
Listening is one of the most constructive methods to make an impact. Take the time to understand one’s story. It’s very important to make eye contact when someone is sharing their experiences- regardless of a language barrier. Don’t let a language barrier keep you from connecting on a personal level with the people you meet. Much can be communicated through eye contact, body language, facial expression, etc.
Define what you are passionate about:
Is there a cause or issue that you feel deeply connected to? Once you have defined your passion can can start to look for ways to make an impact. Is there an organization that you can identify with? Do they share your same values and mission to garner social change?
Do your research
Search the web before you travel to gain a better understanding of what local organizations are already doing within the community. What are those organizations’ needs and how do they interact with their local partners? It’s important to understand what an organization actually does before inserting yourself into their current work. Ask questions like: do they accept in-kind donations, do you accept monetary donations? If so, where does the money go?
Learn the Language
Even knowing a few phrases goes a long way! Most people who work in the tourism industry have had to learn English to communicate with their clients. Speaking to someone in their native language shows you are making the effort. This automatically can break cultural barriers.
Spread the narrative
If you had an incredible experience learning about a new culture, share it with people you know! The more we share, the easier it debunk stereotypes. Listening to locals’ personal stories can connect us on a unique level. These powerful exchanges are truly a vehicle for greater social change.