This blog post is one of a six-part series on how to develop high-impact service-learning curricula. Each post discusses one best practice for writing effective service-learning curricula and provides an example of implementation. These best practices are informed by the development of Live the Questions, American Jewish World Service’s service-learning curriculum for the World Partners Fellowship in India. To engender greater collaboration and support the development of a robust service-learning field, we have made the complete curriculum available here.
Implementation: a look at how fellows engage with and learn from Live the Questions
Eleven days into AJWS’s World Partners orientation, I ran a workshop called Representing the Other: Blogging and Photography in India. Like much of Live the Questions the workshop asks participants to think critically about their role as international volunteers in a way that embodies partnership and solidarity; in short, what it means to be a better volunteer. In this workshop, we discuss the perils, pitfalls, and potential opportunities associated with documenting one’s experience in the Global South and its ethical and practical implications.
The workshop occurs a day before we take fellows on the first of two visits to a marginalized, lower caste community. Before the visit, we discuss what it means to document vulnerable communities through photography and writing. Fellows read Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satire How to Write about Africa—a mocking portrayal of the west’s depiction of Africa with implications for representing any place in the Global South—as well as blogs written by former volunteers, each with its own strengths and problems.
Fellows dissect the blogs and identify aspects they find either troubling or praiseworthy—how the author represents his or her experience and the community with whom they work. Does the author tell a compelling and accurate story? Does he put himself or the community front and center as the main protagonist? If there is a hero in this post, who is it? Is the community represented with dignity? Whose story is really being told?
After discussing these questions, fellows identify principles for responsible blogging and write their own non-satirical “How to Write about India.” Justine Dowden’s*, one of the fellows, went like this:
You are not Mother Theresa, not so noble and your work is not the end all “solution” to India’s woes. It is fair to feel good about your work, but don’t use your placement as a pedestal from which to orate on behalf of “poor women everywhere.” You will never go everywhere nor will you meet all the world’s poor women so it is unfair to make generalizations. Only speak for yourself, not for your NGO, city or country. Recognize your limitations and be liberal in your qualifications if you feel the need to theorize. Mention the good days, the pros along with the cons. Read your post again before it goes live and think before you click. To do anything else could be a detrimental disservice to your environment.
After blogging, the workshop looks at ethical photography. Fellows discuss a variety of circumstances where taking a picture is either appropriate or deeply problematic and again come up with guidelines.
Before the first of the two community visits, we ask fellows to leave their cameras at the orientation site. We ask them to keep in mind what it means to be present during community interactions and what putting a camera between themselves and a community member might mean for relationship building and conveying partnership and solidarity. On the second community visit, the following week, we allow fellows to take pictures and document their experience.
All this, like the curriculum itself, explores the ingredients to effective and responsible volunteering: humility, going slow, and immense self awareness of one’s power and privilege in a country that has far less of both.
The good news is the curriculum works.
When it was time to make a second community visit a week later, fellows chose to leave their cameras at the orientation site. They explained they weren’t finished with their questions and weren’t ready to take pictures. They wanted to process more and go slow as interacting with a local community in a way that conveyed dignity. In short, they wanted to take the curriculum’s title to heart and do exactly what it implores: live the questions.
* Justine Dowden graduated from Brandeis University in 2010. Originally from Sacramento, California, she is now an AJWS World Partners Fellow living in northeastern India working with an NGO that promotes women’s health and gender equality. A blog post by Justine for AJWS’s Global Voices can be found here.