Volunteer Training: An Ethnographic Vignette

I sat down across from Jada and started eating my orange slices. To my right was Emily and next to her was Gabi. We sat in a circle and caught up while we waited for our supervisor, Sarah. Today is our last leaders meeting before Spring Break. Sarah sits to my left and starts handing out some paperwork, then we begin talking about our Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips.

Interestingly enough, today we’re meeting to talk about cultural humility and how to implement this during our service trips. We each define it for our trip participants as well as the sites we’ll be volunteering at. Cultural Humility is defined as the act of being aware of cultural differences and being open to perspectives different from your own without expecting your viewpoint to be correct or dominant. I can’t help but think about the ways in which this ties in with symbolic violence. Do all volunteers get a crash course in cultural humility? Because they should. Even though I like to think I’m very self aware, talking about important topics like this out loud remind us to be critical and stay engaged on a deeper level with our volunteer sites. I not only learned what it mean to be culturally humble, but also how to make sure my trip participants did too.

“Remember that not everyone on your trips has a history in service. This might be someone’s first time volunteering somewhere and they might be going into this week thinking they’re gonna change the world by Friday. You have to be clear about what ASB aims to do. We’re just trying to slowly tip the scale, long term change is slow and steady.”

I was so happy to hear those words. I was so happy Sarah is our supervisor. She explained exactly what my ethnography is trying to argue. She spent the entire meeting guiding us on how to avoid engaging in symbolic violence without even using the term and without knowing I’m researching the subject. She gave us handouts for reflecting with our groups after each day of going to the volunteer sites. Sarah encouraged us to have uncomfortable but also nonjudgemental reflection spaces, she continued to highlight the fact that we have to focus as much on team building as we do volunteering because if we’re not cohesive as a group, we can’t be effective when we go out to serve.

I can’t help but reflect on the kinds of volunteer training I’ve had for the different projects I’ve worked on. Sometimes I only get a “Thank you for signing up for…” email and I show up to the site, make bagged lunches with strangers and then we all leave after we’ve finished. How would things be different if all volunteer-dependent sites committed to volunteer training similar to what Sarah does for ASB?