Mind the Gap: Visitor Beware

An inner-city schoolteacher explores the difference between voluntourism and poorism.

At the height of the pre-recession boom a few years ago, a new type of tourism arose, one designed for wealthy folks, with the intent of making travel more exciting. Called voluntourism (volunteering while traveling) and poorism (touring poverty-stricken areas)—they were quickly heralded as boom industries, with the latter, of course, being branded as more than a little morally ambiguous.

If I'm really being honest with myself, I suppose that my trip to New Orleans with my students was an exercise in both forms of travel. As I wrote last week, the experience was mutually beneficial—not only for our brigade of visiting New Yorkers, but also for the native New Orleanians we encountered along the way. And with summer break on the not too distant horizon, and with that, the opportunity to travel (hallelujah!), I want to talk this week less about educational gaps and more about social gaps—and how they can be explored through travel.

I've been extremely fortunate to travel widely and in a variety of forms. But the trips that have included a service component or a visit to a low-income area have not only been more fulfilling, they provided me with a richer and more comprehensive sense of each place.

But what about the critics, who say voluntourism offers a superficial experience for travelers on the go. And isn’t poorism an exploitative and voyeuristic practice? Perhaps in certain instances. Yet something—some service, some exposure—is better than nothing. Or, as one of my students recently pointed out, “How are you supposed to know about something if you never see it?”

Take our recent weeklong stay in New Orleans. Like many tourists, we could have visited the French Quarter, ridden the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, stuffed our faces with beignets, and simply called it a day. While we would have technically visited New Orleans, we would not have gained an authentic understanding of the city (which, admittedly, is not the goal of many tourists).

Alternatively, we chose to spend our days doing community service and our nights exploring other parts of the city. We split our time among the battered Ninth Ward, the leafy Garden District, and the bustling French Quarter. And while the back-and-forth nature of voluntourism gave my students a bit of cultural whiplash—it also gave them a truer sense of the city.

Admittedly, our volunteer work did not lift St. Bernard Parish or the Ninth Ward out of its post-Katrina carnage. But we did leave feeling as though we made a tangible, if limited, impact.

Some of our students spent a day picking up trash in the parks around St. Bernard Parish. Rather than complain about a mundane task, one of our students realized “how much time it takes to make our environment clean and beautiful for others to enjoy,” she wrote. “In the future, I will think twice before I litter and hurt the environment I live in.”

Okay, you say, so maybe voluntourism really is kosher. But what about poorism? It sounds slimy, even dehumanizing for the residents of these low-income communities.

Maybe. I don’t know the morals or practices of all tour operators in the favelas of Brazil or the slums of India. Some may well be unseemly. However, some simple planning can provide for a mutually beneficial experience.

The best advice I can offer is to find an opportunity that benefits the local community. For instance, in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa, I contacted an American woman working in an orphanage to help arrange a tour for my family in exchange for a donation. In Soweto, my friend and I went on a bike tour and stayed at a hostel owned by a longtime resident, who employed other low-income South Africans. In doing so, we gained access to a side of South Africa we had not seen, and we contributed money to the local economy. Now I’m writing and you’re reading about impoverished areas that receive far too little attention.

And what if poorism evokes schadenfreude, taking pleasure in other people’s pain? It’s unfortunate, but it might just be human nature. Either way, is it so bad to be reminded to be grateful for what you have?

“I can remember walking down the Ninth Ward and just thinking about what kind of memories lie in each and every destroyed home,” one of my students wrote. “It made me open up my eyes and thank God for everything that I have. A lot of times we take things for granted and don’t really appreciate the things we already have. It made me want to just get out there and help out a community in need. Whether it's cleaning a park or feeding the hungry, I think I can make a difference in a person’s life the way I did when I went to New Orleans.”

I know some people find poorism distasteful, and I’m eager to hear other points of view. I just have a hard time criticizing it outright, especially when I receive feedback like this from my students:

“This trip opened up my eyes to the different living conditions many people face today. I now appreciate the things I have and the hard work my parents put into getting them. I can’t imagine losing everything I have, and that’s why my heart goes out to the people in New Orleans. I can now take a step further into helping out in my community and maybe even around the world.”

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

Photographs courtesy of Lowe.

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