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Learning to ride

Learning to ride

By Natalie Jesionka

“Teacher, can you help me buy a bicycle?” asked Ken Wei Wei, after our English class.

When he was fifteen years old, Ken Wei Wei lived as a Burmese refugee in Thailand. He studied at a school for refugees on the Thai-Burma border, which was one of the few places where young refugees pursued an education if they lived outside a refugee camp.

A bicycle, Ken Wei Wei explained, would make it easier to get to the city and receive tutoring at a non-profit centre for refugees. The tutoring would give him a chance to identify and apply for scholarships that the non-profit agency had access to, presenting the possibility of unlocking new opportunities.

I considered the request for a few days. As a young foreign teacher with big ideas of helping but no clear skills to offer outside of the classroom, I wondered if I might be the only means by which Ken Wei Wei could get access to the bicycle that could change his life. A bicycle would cost me around thirty dollars, which, to be honest, was what my friends and I would spend on dinner and drinks during the course of a typical week while living and working on the border. This was a privilege and a power that I did not yet understand.

I did not think big; this was before crowdfunding was even on the radar. I did not think about creating a campaign to get everyone at the school a bicycle, or about teaming up with an organisation to raise awareness and deliver dozens of bicycles. I thought about this one request and how I could help fulfil it.

So I bought the bicycle for Ken Wei Wei, thinking it would be a game changer, and that it would embody the spirit of what ‘doing good’ was all about. The act felt noble; I was making a small impact in a place where the magnitude of the refugee crisis made me feel helpless.

Shortly after Ken Wei Wei received the bicycle he found himself at daily risk of being deported by the immigration police by riding into town checkpoints. Two weeks later he came down with a case of malaria that went to his brain. Finding medical treatment in a place where it was inaccessible became imperative, and the bicycle irrelevant.

ride bicycle
Something that was once important quickly became irrelevant. Photo from Pixabay.

In the world of volunteering and philanthropy, the stories we hear are seamless, like the plot of a movie – the teacher purchases the bicycle, the refugee is able to access excellent tutoring and goes on to win a scholarship at a top university. In practice, the reality is always messier and more complex. The happy endings we often retell to donors and other prospective volunteers are abridged and heavily edited. These stories make impact on the ground appear effortless, and reinforce the idea that all a volunteer needs is the determination to do good. A willingness to make a difference is a great start, but understanding how to deal with challenges on the ground is essential.

It’s important to debunk the ‘quick fix’ stories we are sold. The conversation around effective volunteering is louder than ever, which is undoubtedly a good thing. However, this dialogue often lacks examples of how to provide new volunteers with resources to navigate challenges in their work, and how to cultivate skills and methods for them to succeed.

How do we have meaningful conversations about how to minimise ineffective, and even harmful, volunteering, without discouraging those who aspire to do good?

Make Best Practices and Volunteer Guidelines More Accessible

Best practices may be well known among professionals – we often share them in our own industry circles and list-servs – but new volunteers rarely know where to access these guidelines. For a brand new volunteer embarking on a gap year or service-learning project, it’s easy to overlook the blogs and guidelines highlighting the ethics and challenges of volunteering. Mainstream volunteering narratives that play into the saviour complex, sponsored posts by placement agencies and pieces that “call out volunteers” without having a call to action are more prominent.

We need to elevate the conversation through online platforms that offer concrete advice directed at new volunteers. A few organisations, such as Learning Service and Giving Way, are working to develop the space to facilitate much-needed conversations. It will take a continued effort to get best practices and ethical volunteering ideas in front of new audiences; we must ensure that there are spaces where new volunteers can grow, cultivate new ideas and ask the dumb questions without being afraid of getting it wrong.

plant ride
Allowing space for discussion so people can nurture new ideas is crucial. Photo from Pixabay.

Develop Mentorship and Outreach Channels

I often get requests to talk with an aspiring volunteer about to head abroad or launch a career in the social good space. No matter how hectic things are I make sure to take 30 minutes out of my schedule to connect. It’s important to have an honest conversation about what they might expect, and about addressing key issues like power and privilege, listening to the community and staying realistic. I also leave the door open in case the volunteer may have questions further down the road. This kind of support network is invaluable, and there is a need for more sustainable mentorship networks to help volunteers navigate the sector. Whether it is through formalised pathways such as the Why Dev mentorship program, or through a simple Skype chat, new volunteers need to have access to spaces where they can find support.

We know the volunteer industry and social good world can have turf wars, and there is often an expectation that new rookies will have to earn their stripes, but there needs to be more mentors who step up to help new volunteers contextualise what is happening on the ground. In this way, not only can we prevent the harmful situations we so often talk about, but also create a culture of “paying it forward” among professionals and volunteers.

hands ride
Collaboration is key. Photo from Pixabay.

Encourage Transparency About Our Own Mistakes

 While stories about good intentions gone wrong are abundant, narratives showcasing how to recover from the mistakes we make are few and far between.

I whole-heartedly admit, if I read my own story today, I would quickly condemn the power dynamics I created and the assumptions I held by purchasing a bicycle, and I would be my own worst critic. I would also likely not be able to offer a direct solution to the situation I was confronted with.

Those of us who have experience in the social good and volunteer industry are often quick to judge and call out mistakes made by others, shaming volunteers who ‘should have known better,’ yet we do not talk openly about our own mistakes.

The story of Ken Wei Wei’s bicycle is an example of one of my own mistakes, what I learned from it, and how it helped me to become a more effective volunteer and, later, human rights professional.

thoughtful ride
When we’re open about our mistakes, everyone learns. Photo from Pixabay.

It is critical for experienced volunteers and humanitarian professionals to help guide aspiring volunteers instead of just calling them out. We need to start being more open and honest about the challenges and failures in our work.

We need to talk about our worst, most embarrassing, and most difficult mistakes so we can all learn from them. This will help produce a more skilled volunteer cohort that is likely to evolve into a group of thoughtful and engaged professionals.

Discussions about the moments we begin to understand both our abilities and shortcomings in making an impact will lead to a more robust, introspective and sustainable volunteer industry. We all have moments when everything changes forever, when we royally messed up and when we know we could do better. It’s time to start being more transparent about them.

For discussion:

What were your biggest mistakes, and how did you come to terms with them, or work to remedy them? In what ways did you realise volunteering was far more complex than the stories about making a difference you originally heard? How can understanding our failures lead to better practices for volunteers? Answers in the comments, or in a blog post!

Natalie Jesionka is a lecturer of Human Rights, International Development and Human Trafficking at Rutgers University. She serves as the Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Fulbright Scholar and a 2014 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow. She continues her research on human trafficking around the world. Follow her on twitter @TravelMirror.

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4 thoughts on “Learning to ride

  1. […] While you can crowdfund for your own project (raising money online or through sponsorship), you can also look to crowdfund in other immensely powerful ways – such as in this example ‘Learning to ride’. […]

  2. […] will start with this phrase that I found in a WhyDev post: “A willingness to make a difference is a great start, but understanding how to deal with […]

  3. Marieke Meelen

    Very interesting article, thank you! I’ve seen some bad practices in a project in Kenya I once volunteered for: once and never again as I learned just like you. Trying to evaluate and improve any new projects I do now (in Nepal mostly, which is a challenge, but very worthwhile).

    I was wondering how you feel about conducting SROI analyses, for example through the framework the International Social Value network has developed as one way of critical evaluation and impact measurement (both positive and negative effects).

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