Chasing Change: Mark Twain, Joan Baez
& Volunteers Traveling Solo
Last week, within the course of a few days, I heard a Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”, and, a recording of Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome” at a rally in Alabama in the 60s.
Twain was promoting travel to affect internal change – to broaden perspectives, break down stereotypes and reduce prejudice. A century later, Baez sang to people who traveled to Alabama to achieve essentially the same things, and more. As part of the civil rights movement they sought external change as well.
It got me thinking about this century. Do we still travel for change? What kind of change? Why do people do it? And, what is achieved?
Voluntourism – the current face of travel for change.
Like travel in general, more people are traveling for change than ever before. But it looks nothing like the freedom marches of the 60s. In the last twenty years or so, travel for change has been formalized. People now use volunteer travel companies to research and facilitate volunteer work trips. They are part of the voluntourism movement. They pay to travel, work and support small communities internationally.
i-to-i.com is one such volunteer travel company. I had the pleasure of chatting with Bruce Haxton there. He enthusiastically described his work, the travel experiences his company offers volunteers and the international communities they serve. He explained that, even in these tough economic times, voluntourism is thriving.
Sarah Van Auken, publisher of Volunteering Global, agrees: “Travel for change is on a major, upward trend. With the global economy the way it is, volunteer travel helps justify a vacation.” Sarah researches smaller international projects in need of volunteer support and lets people know about them through her blog.
While volunteer travel is done primarily by people in their twenties, it attracts people of all ages. And, interestingly, a large percentage – 85% in the case of i-to-i.com – go solo. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re single but simply that they do their volunteer travel single. Sarah finds the same amongst her readers. Most make their first volunteer trip with a group of some sort but then move on to travel solo. However, working in communities to build schools, teach, offer healthcare… is hardly a solo experience. Volunteers connect with locals and each other.
Voluntourism – affecting change in many ways.
As you might imagine, volunteer travelers have their sights set on change – in the communities they serve and in themselves. A survey by Lasso Communications in 2009 found that travelers looking to volunteer abroad want to be useful (most important to 38%) and they want a personal learning experience (most important to 21%). They get both and more.
The change that takes place as a result of volunteer travel goes beyond the building of houses or teaching children. It goes beyond expanding the knowledge and experience of those who volunteer. It roots itself in the community where the work is done and spreads to the communities of the volunteers when they return home.
As Mark Twain suggested, travel is fatal to prejudice. Working side by side, travelers and locals really get to know each other. Most i-to-i.com trips are four weeks long. In that time, friendships are made and conversations grow deeper. Small talk is replaced by discussions of values, beliefs and dreams.
“When travelers return home and talk to parents, friends, grandparents… little by little their broader, more accepting perspectives of different nations trickles into their own communities”, explains Bruce. “And likewise, the people in the communities they supported gain an understanding of Europeans or North Americans as individuals interested in helping, not imposing.”
Twain’s comment has never been so relevant. Travel helps us understand each other. In a world of have and have-not nations, of multi-cultural countries that often harbour mistrust between communities, international travel helps us understand not only the what of a people but also the why. The historical and cultural origins of attitudes and behaviour. And that, essentially, people are the same everywhere.
Baez’ song still resonates as well. On a global level there is still much to overcome. And, like the freedom marchers in the 60s, gen X and gen Y have found that solidarity with locals – despite social, economic and political obstacles – helps make water accessible, build schools, deliver health care… Volunteer travelers know that there is strength in numbers.
“People who go on these trips know that they won’t see the change right away, though they may want to”, says Sarah. “But when they return home they can feel the change. Even before they go abroad they know that there are lots of others working toward a similar goal. They get an idea of the scale of things – of the change that they are a part of.”
My thanks to Bruce and Sarah
Bruce is with i-to-i.com, a travel business that coordinates with local partners – people who are passionate about their country, environment, community development – to find the right volunteer projects for their travelers.
Sarah publishes Volunteering Global, a blog where she shares her research on smaller international projects in need of volunteer support – projects that might not be represented by large tour companies.