True “Allyship” Comes Full-Circle

Over the last three weeks, I have had many experiences that have contributed to my learning as a visitor to the complex, transient hub of McLeod Ganj, as a researcher of the effectiveness and issues of international volunteerism, and as an Ally to the Tibetan cause. Beyond new friendships I am making and novel experiences I’ve come to cherish, I have really started to think about ways that I can participate in ‘development’ when I return to Canada and into the future. Something our Field School program has tried to instil is the hard notion that short-term international volunteering, often taking place in the Global South by well-intended Northern participants, can act – but not necessarily, as a brief and partial catalyst to encouraging empathy, solidarity, and change in the quality of life’s conditions of others. In such a short time, I have tried to adapt to new surroundings and cultural norms, have bonded with some locals, and have learned a lot about this particular culture, issue, and place. But moreover, it has become so apparent that inequalities and injustices plaguing certain communities in the world over others are directly and indirectly the result of interconnected global systems at play. In fact, it is critical that we acknowledge that some study abroad/international volunteering experiences may perpetuate conditions of poverty and privilege between host communities and visiting guests. It has thus become much more obvious, now already being here, that I may have a much larger role at home in Canada to encourage widespread solidarity with marginalized and oppressed groups, like Tibetans under China, and others alike, than from solely being here for one month’s time.

A few conversations I have had at Students for a Free Tibet have taught me some insightful lessons that apply to solidarity and international community engagement experiences. Two Tibetan peers shared with me some cultural ‘sayings’, both relaying how important it is for people on Earth to recognize how dependent we are on one another, and how acts of compassion make the world a better place for everyone. I have inherited a very fortunately life in Ontario, which often shelters me from facing hard facts, every day, about historical and ongoing global economic, political, and social/psychological systems that cushion my upbringing and provide me opportunities, and have actively left others disadvantaged or essentially forgotten. Perhaps it is precisely because Im recognizing these privileges, being so young, with such an education, socio-economic status, amongst other integral factors, that I am capable of taking on the challenge of facing my government, media, and peers back home taking a stance advocating on behalf of individuals and communities around me that are burdened, silenced, or oppressed in ways that I do not necessarily experience every day. Individuals – especially those burdened less by discrimination, truly do hold a lot of power to have their words, values, and concerns listened to, and perhaps once acknowleding their privileges and participation in systems of inequality, can move past feelings of ‘guilt’ in order to take on the responsibility/obligations to others in the world, even in their backyard, as an Ally willing to acknowledge privilege and power imbalances, and to commit to actions to change them. 
– Mackenzie 

 

When to Work & When to Wander 

Finally arriving in and navigating a place you’ve prepared to volunteer in and explore like Dharamsala can be a rightfully disorienting and exciting experience. As our India Field School clan zig-zagged up mountain roads anticipating the complex cultural, spiritual, and economic hub nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya, I grew eager to get started with Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) – India, and to exercise the critical thinking and cultural preparations we fostered prior to arriving.  After a fulfilling week, Mike and I had our first full day of work with SFT and I was confronted with a range of feelings about ‘volun-touring’ in a complex place of identity, politics, and cross-cultural exchange.

Mike and I met with our Intern coordinator and the rest of the staff at SFT India, receiving a very warm welcome. We were then encouraged to participate in local public outreach the following day for the final day of SFT’s Earthquake relief collection for Nepal. I was secretly quite anxious to be in the streets of McLeod Ganj, allocated the responsibility I had anticipated to receive for months now. Part of my preparations for coming to Dharamsala included learning some Hindi and Tibetan language. I took this street campaigning opportunity as chance to challenge myself in exercising these skills in practice, hoping to facilitate more meaningful dialogue between myself as a visitor and volunteer, and local peoples. A number of interactions with the diverse local, domestic, and international public affirmed my expectations that understanding local languages in places you may travel to volunteer in can foster more intimate exchanges and relationships. However, as the day continued I realized my linguistic skills were in fact too limited – that I perhaps underestimated my cultural preparations beforehand and would be faced with limitations in my capacities to engage with, learn from, and understand the communities I’ve studied so hard to do so. 

As a town made popular largely from the exiled residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and increasingly, from international awareness of the Tibetan situation, a diversity of visitors, expats, students, and researchers have become more commonplace. Dharamsala, I’ve learned, receives a vibrant range of visitors that may come to explore in leisure the great mountains, waterfalls, temples, and Eastern cultural heritage, or study yoga, Tibetan or Indian cultures, or work/volunteer at local organizations. It has occurred to me that our group, here, may grapple with a multitude of roles/perspectives/aspirations for ourselves during our short time being here. This may challenge us to question the attitudes, behaviours, and assumptions we carry with us each day, and whether or not international volunteering + travel can combine well to facilitate efforts of social justice or povery alleviation, cultural learning, and responsible travel. 
From the range of challenges and lessons I’ve taken thus far, arriving at the volunteering component of our field school has solidified the potential for us Field School students to embark on meaningful reflection about the experiences we have here as travelers, students, and global citizens. It will be challenging to strike a balance between these roles we adopt here in India, while I believe we each will strive to do so at best.
– M.