My college, like many colleges, offers an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in which you tackle a specific issue (ex. LGBTQ activism, homelessness, animal rights, environmental conservation, education, etc). It’s very service-learning focussed and in the months leading up to the trip students are required to meet with their groups and partake in fundraising for the trip.
Cornell college follows the “break away” ASB model i.e:
- Strong direct service
- Alcohol and other drug free
(via Cornell College’s Alternative Spring Break Page)
That’s great. And personally, my ASB experience was genuinely educational and did make me a better activist. But–based on what I’ve seen and the people I’ve talked to–it usually doesn’t do a whole lot. And this isn’t just my college. If anything, I appreciate that they–at least–make an effort to thread it through the school year. I take issue with brief service trips in general for the following reasons:
1. Hit and run direct service is more obligatory than impactful.
Break away’s ASB model opens with Strong direct service… but why? It’s presented as helping out the community but I think it’s far more self-aggrandizing than that. We get satisfaction from making a quantifiable impact. We did X hours of community service, we helped package X amount of goods, we built X amount of birdhouses (or whatever). Before these trips we are reminded that we are not saviors, that we can’t just come in and make everything better. But we sure seem to try.
So who does, for example, tutoring kids for a week really help?
The only benefit I can see with one week of direct service is that it allows students to talk to community organizers but as far as making a real difference. Eh. It’s not like you’re going there once a week for a year. The soup kitchen was doing fine before you and will be doing fine after you. And yes, if you volunteer somewhere, even once, I am making an impact–technically speaking. But it’s so grossly minimal in comparison to the amount of money spent on transport, food, and housing that it feels like buying a novelty sized check of a few hundred dollars–metaphorically speaking–for all the money you spent getting the giant check made, couldn’t you have put that money towards what you ACTUALLY give that person.
But no, it’s not a service trip if you’re not slowly/poorly doing work that the people in the organization you’re “helping” have to oversee you do. And of course I realize that ASB trips aren’t entirely about direct service but still, I think we need to shift the way we think about service trips. Just because you’re not physically doing as much doesn’t have to mean you’re not doing as much.
2. You get more than you give (unless you truly use this experience to change your lifestyle).
What does ASB give you? Something to put on your resume, a sense of being a good citizen, bonding with your peers, and a cheap trip to wherever you go ex. New mexico, Chicago, New Jersey, Denver (and yes, you’re probably sleeping in a church basement but cheap is cheap). What do you give? After a small amount of work–nothing unless you take this as a real learning experience and continue this activism.
The catch phrase for ASB is “act on your issue” but if you’re only really acting for a week, what’s the point? ASB trips are treated as the activism climax–what you’ve been preparing for all year. But it’s meant to be a platform for lifelong service, not a final stage.
3. The “ASB experience” risks eclipsing the purpose.
Traveling to do service in a specific topic is like teachers who try and integrate technology in the classroom. It’s a great idea that can be valuable but what you’re learning should always be in the forefront. In terms of hitting the “diversity” goal, I get the travel component. But part of it feels like this romanticized idea of traveling to a new place to serve in order to return as a more enlightened individual. It’s a great dream but I’m skeptical.
I do, however, think there’s value in traveling to a new place to learn about experiences that are unlike your own… but if you don’t return to take this knowledge to impact your own community it seems like a waste. Whether it’s your college campus, the surrounding community, or your hometown you should be striving to take what you learn and use it–otherwise you’re just taking.
I’ve only had one ASB experience and it was actually really positive. But this was, in part, because the direct service component was very minimal. Last spring I went on a service trip to Chicago, focussed on LGBTQ activism. We spent most of the trip learning about our issue by talking to community organizers and learning the different ways activism exists: spreading information (the windy city times), having blogs/youtube videos, educating others on LGBTQ history (the legacy walk), providing resources for LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness or difficulty finding employment/housing (one of the many things the Center on Halsted does), and–of course–the importance being a good ally.
I left this trip feeling more informed about some of the issues that impact the LGBTQ community outside of the mainstream media. And seeing the passion my trip leaders had/have for activism helped me grow into a better ally, in general. I was reminded that it’s not enough to believe in something–you need to be active about it. Be at protests, sign petitions, talk to your peers, come to vigils, etc.
Service trips should be about educating yourself and becoming a better ally to a community. Not about you cleaning a kitchen, packing cans, or building bunk beds. When it comes to short service trips, as citizens, I think we’re often more focussed on being able to say what we did rather than being able to say what we will do as a result of the experience.