Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It was going really well until the Germans danced to Achy Breaky Heart...

Right now, I'm at a conference in Bonn about quality management in international voluntary services, specifically volunteers from Germany going to the Global South.  Although this doesn't have tons to do with my job (most of my interactions are with volunteers serving in western Europe and North America), I'm really glad I came.  It's so rejuvenating to be somewhere where the discussions are about theory and studies, as opposed to my usual bureaucratic office work.  Most of the conference proceedings are in English, but it's in the free time conversations I have with (other?) young academics about questions of power and privilege and how these things affect international development work where I notice that my German is slowly getting better and I'm getting to the point where I can have conversations and construct sentences and thoughts almost as well as the Germans with whom I'm talking.

And that's exciting, and... I almost feel like I've found a new excitement for what I'm doing.  Only almost, though, because I ultimately know that most of my time is going to be spent sending Abmeldungen and Anmeldungen and Dienstbescheinigungen and whatever else to different places (and filing.  I HATE FILING)... but maybe I'll be able to bring what I learn here and my analysis and everything else into the jobs I have.

There have been times at EIRENE when I've been surprised by statements made by volunteers that have gone unchallenged -- for example, one (White, male, middle class) volunteer, when talking about his time spent serving in a homeless shelter in the southern US, said, "I had seen on TV that Black people laugh a lot and are happy all the time, and in my time in the US, I saw that it really is so."  I didn't say anything, and probably should have -- ultimately, the goal of international volunteer service isn't to reinforce preexisting racist stereotypes.  And it's also true that most people (myself in cluded) aren't aware of how problematic many things they take for granted are until someone calls them out on it.

I'm not telling this story in order to somehow damn EIRENE and the work they're doing -- I will stand up in support of study abroad and long-term volunteer service opportunities at a moment's notice, and my teenaged and young adult years have been greatly influenced by time spent abroad.  There are also a lot of times when you notice that this volunteer service accomplished really good things... right before I watched the presentation I mentioned earlier, I read in a volunteer evaluation that although "I had always been taught and had always believed that all people were equal, it wasn't until my volunteer service that I realized what believing this really meant."

I used to beat myself up every time I had the chance to call someone out on a racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/whatever else statement, but didn't.  I'm still not okay with the fact that I don't do it all the time... but the weight of the world doesn't rest only in my hands.  A UU friend of mine (and, incidentally, a former BVSer) once gave me a piece of advice for which I am extremely grateful: Let yourself make one mistake every day.  Don't beat yourself up about it, don't spend hours thinking about how you could have handled the situation better.  Just let yourself be fallible.  This isn't meant to be an excuse for letting problematic assumptions and actions go unchallenged.

And now, slowly but surely, I'm getting to the point where I realize that by trying to do everything and save the world and dismantle every single oppressive institution before I turn 30, I'm overworking myself to the point of total unproductivity.  The weight of the world doesn't rest only in my hands.  (Can you tell I'm having to tell myself that over and over again?)  Changing gears, though, is really challenging.  Ever since I was 13, a huge part of my life has been defined by my involvement with church committees -- to the point where, in my first year of college, I was flying to Boston (or somewhere else) about once a month.  The fact that I was able to focus a lot of my attention on things other than UU youth ministry (like tech theatre!  oh, right, and maybe my studies) for the rest of my college career is probably of the few reasons why I can thank the UUA administration for systematically dismantling the continental youth leadership structures.  For the first time since I was 13, I am not on any committees.  I am a member of a congregation, but my formal commitments end there.  And so now, I have to learn how to be a religious person in a way that isn't defined by committee memberships and institutional commitments.  I am currently working on the intentional process of BEING.

By the way, in one of my workshops today, we watched a video from TED (awesome, by the way) in which Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, talks about the importance of stories and relationship, as well as the danger of a single narrative.  It's about 20 minutes long and SO WORTH YOUR TIME.

Oh, and welcome to my brain, by the way.  This is what goes on inside it most of the time.

1 comment:

  1. yeah, that "being" thing is tough...something I have to keep reminding myself over and over and over...

    there's so much to DO, after all!