Elizabeth Schondelmayer: How Not to be a Voluntourist

August 24, 2018 - Liz Schondelmayer

For 12 weeks this summer, I interned in Flint, Michigan, with a non-profit community engagement organization called Communities First, Inc. As a small town girl who grew up on the west side of the state, Flint was, without a doubt, an entirely new experience for me.

To live and work there as an outsider taught me a lot about what it means to be a part of a community, and what it means to truly make a difference within a community. However, as I went through those weeks, I tried my best to take careful steps to avoid being a “voluntourist.” If you don’t know what this means, here’s a quick definition of voluntourism from the dictionary:

“Voluntourism” – noun. A form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.

Thus, a "voluntourist” is anyone who participates in these programs.

The definition of the word doesn’t sound all bad, but the negative connotation of the phrase comes from the fact that often times, these programs are designed more to make the participant feel good than to actually make them do good – which means they leave with good feelings and a clean conscious, but the community they “helped” doesn’t benefit nearly at all.

But the line between ready helper and voluntourist is not always clearly defined, and depending on who you ask, may not even exist at all. I do believe that there is a difference and that there is a way to serve a community that is not your own without becoming this stereotype, but it takes a certain level of critical thought and self-reflection to pull this off.

As I went through this process, I kept a small checklist running to make sure that I kept myself in-check while in a new city dealing with new problems. These are the 7 rules I  created for myself to follow to avoid being a voluntourist in Flint while I completed my internship.

My rules were as follows:

  1. Recognize that you are an outsider. You have not lived here your whole life, and therefore, you have no idea the scope of the issues you are trying to solve. Don’t try to be a know-it-all.
  2. Listen to the city’s residents. Going back to #1, the city’s residents know a lot more than you do about their lives, their situations, and the condition of the city. Let them speak, and as they speak, listen to understand – do NOT listen to respond. You are not a superhero here to “save the day,” you are a servant to the city to help implement practical solutions.
  3. Keep an open mind. As you listen to the residents and try to get a grasp of the city’s culture, do not jump to any conclusions. As someone who came to Flint from Michigan’s West Coast, all I heard was “water crisis” this and “highest crime rates” that. I had to ditch these negative preconceived notions going in, or I would never have the perspective that I have of Flint right now.
  4. Recognize your privilege. (For clarification, having privilege does NOT mean that you didn’t ever work hard to get where you’re currently at – all that it means is that you have been able to avoid systematic obstacles that others have not.) For me, my privilege comes from the fact that I am a white, college-educated person who grew up in a middle-class family. I know these things have provided me with opportunities I would not otherwise have, which humbles me and allows me to see the city and its residents for who they are and helps me to better understand their current situations.
  5. When in doubt, choose compassion. Be compassionate. Be empathetic. Every stranger you meet is deserving of respect and kindness. You would think these things would be obvious, but there is a reason I am putting this item on this list.
  6. Check your intentions. With every decision, there is a degree of selfishness involved. We’re all human, it’s expected and normal. However, if you’re only wondering what the experience and the community can do for you and not how you can truly make a genuine impact on the community in which you will be volunteering/interning/serving, it may not be the opportunity for you. It’s all about the reason you’re there – and if it’s only to make yourself look good and/or feel good or to get you ahead in life, that will reflect poorly in your interactions with the community.
  7. Be willing to be uncomfortable. More likely than not, if you are in a new place, there’s probably going to be some scary moments for you, especially if the place is very unlike your home. That’s okay. It does not mean you are a bad person or the city is a bad place – it only means you are out of your comfort zone, and that is a good thing – outside of your comfort zone is where life begins.
For anyone considering an experience like mine but hesitant to go for it for the same reasons I was – fearing becoming a “voluntourist,” I will leave you with this: go for it. Living and working in a new city is a profound experience and will change you as a professional and a person – especially when your work somehow serves a community. However, make sure that your heart is in the right place and that you are led by good intentions, and you will give back to the community as much as you take from the experience.