FEATURE ARTICLE 2
"Making History" VolunTourism-Style
Diversity is at the core of urban environments throughout the world. People of many lands have crossed oceans, deserts, and frozen tundras to dwell in major metropolitan areas. When Ms. Karinda Washington and Mr. Ali Fadlallah decided it was time to get their respective communities connected, they realized that a trip filled with service and interaction would be a unique way to share the similarities amidst the differences. With the backdrop of an STLF Pay It Forward Tour from Dearborn/Detroit, Michigan to Memphis, Tennessee, two busses and their drivers, and a cast of students, faculty, support staff, and volunteers (two from Australia, even!), they did what some might have thought impossible - they made history!
Mr. Ramon Jones stood next to the driver of Dearborn/Detroit Bus #2. His braids swayed across his shoulders as he surveyed students – some from his very own Pershing High School and some from nearby Fordson High School. The question to his charges was at once promising, inspirational, and, perhaps, a little intimidating:
“Are you ready to make history?”
Truth be told, Mr. Jones, the Educator/Administrator-in-Charge of the Second Chance Academy at Pershing High School, had already done a little history-making of his own. He had returned a phone call from Ms. Karinda Washington, on a Saturday morning, no less, asking him if he would like to participate in a Pay It Forward Tour.
What inspired Mr. Jones to return that phone call?
As he describes it, his zeal sprang out of his personal experience - a voluntourism journey he had taken to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Gutting houses and participating in restoration activities, as well as meeting the local residents and hearing their stories, represented ample fuel for kindling his desire to get his students involved. “I just knew my kids had to do this,” he said. And when he used the term "my kids," he really meant his kids, as he managed to include his two stepsons on Dearborn/ Detroit Bus #1.
Over the preceding months, playing the role of facilitator/motivator, he had been a major impetus in the connection between the nineteen African-American students (many of whom prefer "Black") from Pershing and twenty-one Arab-American students from Fordson, twenty-four of whom, sat before him in that moment. But, from whence did this idea of having African-American and Arab-American young people serving and traveling together originate?
Karinda Washington, the Founder of BOTS-Entertainment, had connected with the notion of voluntourism when she assisted Greg Tehven, Co-Founder of Students Today Leaders Forever, in planning a city-stop in Detroit for a Pay It Forward Tour. She was so pleased with the outcome that she decided to join Greg and the STLF Team on a trip from Elgin, Illinois. Her personal engagement bred an even greater desire to get her community involved; Karinda decided that a trip from Detroit would be ideal.
Unbeknownst to Karinda, a young man, Ali Fadlallah, from nearby Dearborn, was having his own revelations following a voluntourism trip he had taken as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. His subsequent service as a counselor at the 2007 STLF's High School Leadership Camp led him to the notion that Dearborn had to do this, too.
"I opened up and made a commitment to my fellow college crew members, including all four founding members of STLF, and expressed my passionate aspirations for bringing the Pay It Forward Tour back home (to Detroit and Dearborn)," Ali wrote me in an email. "Shortly after camp, Greg got in touch with me, and told me that there was a wonderful, energetic woman by the name of Karinda Washington who was from Detroit. He explained that Karinda had been on a tour before, and would surely love to pair up for an opportunity like this."
The initial face-to-face between these vibrant young people took place at a Borders Books & Music in August of 2007. The assignment was straightforward: Ali would work to ensure that a Dearborn school would come on board and Karinda would locate a Detroit school to agree to participate. Ali would work with the Arab-American community in Dearborn and Karinda would work with the African-American community of Detroit.
Phone calls followed, meetings followed, and finally, as Karinda puts it, "Pershing and Fordson were the only schools to reply favorably." They had their two schools; all that was left was to create the tour.
Administrators, Faculty & Other Supporters
There has been a lot of finger-pointing that has followed this trip. "Who should receive the kudos for bringing it to fruition," has been a question that many have been unwilling or, too modest, to answer. It appears to have been a true team effort.
Mr. Ramon Jones is quick to point out that Dr. Deborah K. Jenkins, Principal of Pershing High School, offered her contribution by supporting fundraising efforts and off-setting a portion of the costs of the trip via funds that the school receives from Federal sources. "She had a major impact on making this trip possible in the first place," he told me via phone after the trip. "She helped me meet with parents and faculty and others who were questioning whether this was a good idea or not."
From the Dearborn side, Ali told me that Miss Nuzmeya Elder, a counselor at Fordson High School, had been the torch-bearer, expressing the same enthusiasm that Mr. Jones was offering at Pershing. "I worked hand in hand with her to make this trip possible. She was responsible for recruitment, updating the students, and keeping in contact with parents. Without Ms. Elder, none of this would've been possible! She was really the driving force at Fordson High School." In addition, the supporting cast from the Dearborn High School District included Ms. Jacqueline Rivait and Mrs. Kathy Malone, who served as chaperones on Detroit/Dearborn Bus #2.
Robin Patrick, a businessman from Australia, and his colleague, Steve Lacy, served as chaperones (Robin on Bus #1, Steve on Bus #2). Robin captured many of the unique moments of the trip via his photos (seen throughout this story). "I witnessed these young Americans put aside their fears, prejudices and
preconceptions to help those who were more in need," Robin told me afterwards, "This uncovered similarities
and created friendship and unbreakable bonds between two disparate groups. I can
only imagine what will happen when they realize they are capable of
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Kari Foley, also a student at the University of Minnesota, came on board just six days prior to departure, she had known about the trip for more than six months. "Greg (Tehven) asked me to be a college leader only six days before we left because another college leader had dropped," Kari shared with me in an email after her experience. "I am so glad that it worked out because I learned a tremendous amount from our participants. I have never been able to interact with two completely different cultures and see such a wonderful bond between them in just five days. Those students had a lot to share and truly broke the stereotypes for kids their age."
"Criminals & Terrorists"
These "stereotypes," of which Kari speaks, were held in the spotlight one evening when the students had a chance to participate in a group discussion. Each night during the trip, tour leaders facilitated a variety of activities. Following a Salvation Army service project in Louisville, Kentucky, at which students served food & beverages, played games and interacted with guests, Mr. Jones' group (Bus #1) was given an exercise. The students were asked to identify terms used in pop culture and the media to describe African-Americans and Arab-Americans.
What did they feel was the general consensus when portraying them? I must say, as a participant on this trip, this was one of the most difficult activities I have ever encountered. Sixteen young people, 15 - 17 years of age, listed on two sheets of paper the various terms used in popular culture, in the media, and elsewhere, to describe their respective cultures, and, more specifically, each one of them. Can you imagine being 15 years old and carrying the burden of being labeled a "criminal" or a "terrorist"? Thinking, feeling, perceiving that this is the way the "world" around you sees you?
These young people, I give them great credit, handled the challenge in a well-mannered and incredibly mature way. Nevertheless, as I looked into those eyes and faces around me, I could sense that it was, most assuredly, beyond difficult. No matter how much effort they made to portray bravado, there was an aura of dismay and hurt that emoted from each young face. And then, somehow, like the first rays of dawn disrupting the night's vigil, one of the young people made a most profound statement: "You all are dealin' with the same stuff we are - disrespect."
And there it was, like Elmer's, Duct tape, and Super Glue all wrapped into one. The students found a commonality amidst their differences; the bond was solidified; history was made.
And History Is Still Being Made...
From Greg Tehven, Co-Founder of STLF:
"Watching a group of students explore the differences of their culture, community and race over a week was exciting and challenging. What was fascinating was that after three days, they began focusing on their similarities and how being a teenager united them more than their differences."
Greg served as a leader on Dearborn/Detroit Bus #2
When I spoke with Mr. Jones a couple of weeks ago, he told me that the Dearborn kids and his kids had been text-messaging one another ever since they got back from their trip. They recently did a service project together and went to the mall to socialize and hang out. He told me about getting a hug from one of his students the first day back at school. He shared how much the kids enjoyed Memphis, Tennessee, and that they had to go back just so they could have some more of the "best chicken they had ever eaten."
He spoke of how proud he was of all of the kids and how he wanted to do more trips like this for the kids and himself. In fact, he told me that he was trying to put together a voluntourism trip with a group of folks to Mali later this year. "We are fundraising, doing everything we can; I hope we can make it happen."
If Ramon can generate the same, enthusiastic spirit that he continues to exemplify in bringing together the kids of Fordson and the kids of Pershing, no doubt he will be in Mali soon, and very soon.
A Student's Poem From Bus #2
|We sit in a old school on stage.
We join together go through the lovliest phase.
We meet, greet, eat, sleep, and not forget make purple.
Discrimination Never! We can jump over the biggest hurdle.
Segregation forever? Whatever. We beat odds & stereotypes.
They call us terrorists & trouble makers; we're here to beat the hype.
Even though we stay up all night past "lights out,"
Emotions soar as we have group discussions, even when a few pout.
But as the five days start to fly by,
We will have all left friends as the last day goes awry.
So to everyone I met, live and let lie,
But as time goes memories will fly.
As for Karinda and Ali, they keep doing what they do best: building community. Karinda is producing the Hip Hop Mile 2008 and Ali is wrapping up another year of college while planning a new voluntourism trip for Fordson students. Expect some great things from these young people and be on the lookout - you might very well see them in a town near you one day in the not-too-distant future.
One question abounds on discussion boards and blog postings across the globe: "How sustainable is voluntourism?" An excellent question, of course, but if we continue focusing all of our efforts on discovering whether VolunTourism is sustainable or not, we will completely miss the incredible amount of social capital that this form of travel is generating. (Dara Parker, of Handprint Adventures touches on social capital in our 3-Q's for this issue.)
At some point, we will come to realize that the strength of VolunTourism is not based upon accomplishment but upon process - the process of people coming together to serve and travel in a town, village, or city that is not their own; the process of the residents of these same towns, villages, and cities, opening their lives to voluntourists. Collectively, they are generating something that cannot be measured with the same metrics used to assess and evaluate community development. They are developing community of a different sort, one that may prove far more sustainable than a house, community center, irrigation ditch, or eco-lodge ever could.
David Clemmons, Publisher/Editor
Thus, I propose a different question: "How can we enhance the social-capital-development potential of VolunTourism?" Over the long haul, I think the answers that spring from this question will be far more productive and valuable to everyone. Instead of concentrating on what VolunTourism may or may not be, we will be attentive to what it is - a means for developing community.
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