Yesterday I did my laundry from Ecuador (don’t judge me), and I found the pants I have worn at some point during every service trip I’ve been on. They have paint from New Orleans that reminds me of yellow cake batter, and now, dirt from digging into a hill in Ecuador. They remind me that I have been places and had adventures, but they also remind me of the most frustrating moments of staffing service trips, when my students say, “We were just talking to people when we could have been working.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this notion that physical labor is the highest form of service, and the only legitimate one. Service is not just something we do with our hands. In fact, if it is only something that we do only with our hands, and not our brains and mouths, then it’s essentially worthless. There must be a context set initially, and revisited throughout the trip and after, as to why the work needs to be done, what the circumstances are that necessitate relying on the labor of strangers, and why we as volunteers feel we are entitled to dictate what work is valid and important. We have to be willing to spend our time listening, playing, singing in order to understand any of these things,in order to open ourselves up to the possibility of a genuine encounter.
Service where you simply build the house/dig the road/weed the garden is an anti-intellectual approach to what can and should actually be an extremely rigorous experience. To base our expectations as volunteers on what we will accomplish in the way of physical work creates a stratification where intellectual and emotional engagement is less valued than brawn and muscles.
There is also a problematic gender component of volunteer based physical labor-namely, the way it can reinforce and reward the male strength/female weakness dichotomy. Women can be helpless bystanders while men do the heavy lifting, because in the worst and most typical of service scenarios, they aren’t being allowed or empowered to think of themselves as having physical ability. The traditional norms of male/female social dynamics don’t make it comfortable for women to take a leadership role in situations that utilize manual labor.
Finally, we as volunteers and people who live in the world have inevitably carried into our volunteer experience certain messages about race and class. We think we know what will best help, and what that help looks like, because we are American, because we are white, because we have been to college, etc. We cease to listen, and worse, we become incapable of hearing. Volunteering is a political act, after all, one that requires us to educate ourselves as well as those in our communities. As long as we continue to prize physical achievement over all else in our service work, we will never challenge our assumptions about who needs help, why, and our role in perpetuating it. We will continue to think of “them” as lazy, weak, stupid; the desperate Third World masses of our bootstrap obsessed American dreams.