The Value of Blurring Visitors and Hosts in Global Learning

June 8, 2017

By Brandon Blache-Cohen is the Executive Director of Amizade. Over the last decade, he has organized hundreds of global service-learning courses in partnership with around 200 different universities, high schools, and government agencies. His work has placed him in around 80 countries with dozens of community organizations, tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Young people from Northern Ireland and the Hill District of Pittsburgh tour Belfast City Hall together.

People always ask me why I dedicated my life to global learning. I usually pause (for dramatic effect), and then slowly and crisply (again, for more drama) say that I haven’t. I have dedicated my life to social justice, and I am aware of few experiences that shake people into a life of active citizenry better than a highly reflective, intentional, global service-learning journey. Yet, in the global learning spectrum from k-12 language courses to fair trade learning (FTL), we have a serious problem.

Programs and projects are too often designed, marketed, and accessible to a select few, usually a whiter and wealthier demographic. These folks are then afforded luxuries in the marketplace later in life that their poorer friends (and often people of color) are not able to access. Although we have built some great tools for creating more civically engaged and socially active people, they remain specially crafted to fit only the hands of certain, more privileged, groups of Americans.

The historic narrative in the volunteer abroad sector (of which I’m most familiar) paints a picture of courageous young white women who sign up to get dirty and change a poor community, only to discover they were the ones to return changed (#studyabroad, #volunteer, #bethechange). Even in more nuanced circles, conversations around engaging communities through service tend to find ways to perpetuate uneven power dynamics. Rarely do we hear stories of universities or high schools actually engaging in cross-community solidarity-building, social capital creation, or any sort of mutually empowering global engagement. In fact, not once – in creating over 400 global programs – has a university administrator asked me to provide evidence of community impact or even community interest in hosting their students. Outcomes that matter, it seems, are all about their paying customers.

In 2011, Amizade and its partners around the world pioneered the concept of Fair Trade Learning (FTL). FTL was imagined as a way to disrupt the world of global learning, alter the marketplace, increase transparency, and most importantly blur the lines of what it means to be a host community and a visiting community. As a part of our FTL initiatives, Amizade began creating opportunities for our host communities around the world to become sending communities. This meant that our friends in Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and Pittsburgh – who for many years hosted those well-to-do white college students – were finally able to flip the script and engage global service-learning programs outside of their own neighborhood.

There is much to learn, but in the last few years, I have observed the incredible power when we make an effort to blur hosts and visitors in global learning in the following ways:

  1. New Language: In the past we would reference our constituents in two main categories: as “students” and “community members.” This language in itself created a dynamic in which one group was thought to be learning and one group was a petri dish. Since creating FTL, we now talk only in terms of “participants.” This means that everyone involved in an exchange program has the ability to invest and gain in similar ways. The difference in parlance means that our friends who historically were hosts can now reasonably imagine themselves as active participants, while historic visitors are at least linguistically requested to be on a horizontal playing field.
  2. Solidarity Building: When we blur hosts and visitors, we are often surprised and inspired in the ability for diverse networks to link. Amizade has worked closely with youth clubs in Northern Ireland for over 15 years. Many of the neighborhoods where we collaborate were heavily impacted by the violence of the Troubles. At the same time we partner closely in Pittsburgh’s Hill District – an African American community with a rich cultural history, but also one that has faced ongoing struggle. In 2013, we created an FTL program that engaged service and learning on both sides of the pond for both groups of youth. Many young people who live in these communities never imagined leaving their neighborhoods, let alone the solidarity that they would find on the other side. Yet, when the groups began learning about each other’s experiences, they reported feeling strongly connected on issues of race, power, privilege, and very specifically on police violence.
  3. Equity in Professional Development: Let’s be honest, while hosting is a neat way to learn about the world, most people imagine travelling as a more important life-experience. In fact, our partners report that traveling is something they can and do put on their resume and that their time abroad directly results in better career opportunities. In order to provide these opportunities, we now ask our education partners in the US to consider funding  Jamaican community members to speak on their campus or Brazilians nursing students to join American nursing students on health boat trips on the Amazon. When this is feasible, participants report feeling greater social capital and having their career goals clarified.

When global engagement fails, things can get ugly. We can perpetuate white savior complex and even exploit and put vulnerable people in danger. But when global engagement works well, we become one step closer to a more just world. In my experience, the pinnacle of global education may in fact be when we are able to blur the lines of who is the host and who is the visitor and who is the learner and who is the teacher. There is much to learn and explore in this arena, but it seems that the value of blurring these lines in global education may lead to a bit more solidarity and mutual respect between diverse groups, increased social action, and real-life human beings being better off.


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