Over the course of two weeks, twelve of my fellow GSSW classmates and I visited with a total of nine organizations to learn about social work and social justice advocacy in Costa Rica. One of those visits was to an elementary school in a high-poverty region in a neighborhood called Granadilla. My classmates and I commented on how we were inspired by the school social workers’ joy and commitment to their students’ wellbeing. The social workers guided us on a walking tour of Granadilla with the purpose of exposing us to the poverty in the neighborhood so that we would have a better understanding of some of the barriers to academic success that the students face. Prior to and during the tour, my classmates and I discussed amongst ourselves apprehension about participating in this tour; we had a fear of offending the residents of the neighborhood by appearing as spectators in a “poverty zoo” so to speak. Nevertheless, we joined in on the tour, all the while expressing amongst ourselves our disapproval of this activity.
When the social workers invited us to walk off of the main roads, downhill, closer to the entries of the tin homes in this shanty-town, many of us, including myself, chose not to join them and stayed uphill to watch from afar. I saw a resident of the neighborhood and a young child standing outside their front door, watching as some of our group members trekked downhill past her doorway. I imagined that if I were her, I would feel ashamed that a group of privileged students from a “richer” country came to my neighborhood to talk about and point out mine and my neighbors’ tin homes with looks of shock and dismay. I didn’t want to strip her of her dignity, so I remained uphill with some of my classmates and tried not to stare. We knew better than to objectify the poor.
Uphill, an employee of the language institute who came along for the tour pointed out to me electrical poles and described how this particular area with homes built along the hill was often flooded at night in the frequent Costa Rica rains, cutting off their electricity. This gave me a visual image of what my professors meant back in my environmental science class when they said that the poor are the first affected by climate change. I imagined kids from Granadilla School trying to do their homework at night, and then the electricity cutting out, leaving them in darkness as rain flooded the floors of their homes.
Later that day in a group discussion, one of my classmates who accompanied the social workers downhill shared that the social workers were offended by those in our group who opted out of going downhill into the shanty-town. One social worker apparently expressed a bit of outrage that she thought that we thought that we were “too good” to be so close to such extreme poverty, and declared that this is reality for the students of Granadilla School. She thought that we were in the wrong for trying to avoid this unfortunate reality.
My classmates and I realized that there had been a complete misunderstanding; we had opted out of full participation of the tour with good intentions of not offending the residents, and of not being spectators in a poverty zoo. On the contrary, as social work students, many of us have worked or even lived in high poverty regions both in the U.S. and abroad, this couldn’t have been more wrong. However, this misunderstanding served as a learning opportunity that I believe is important for all human service providers who work cross-culturally.
- Collaborative dialogue is more intentional and productive when we formulate our fears and discomfort into questions that we share with vulnerability rather than maintaining assumptions that we whisper amongst ourselves with people who agree with us. For example, one thing that I could have asked of the school social workers is: “I have observed/read that people in high poverty regions often feel as though they are in a poverty zoo when Americans come into their environments with good intentions, but also take photos and point. What do you think about that?” We learned after the tour that the community members in Granadilla are used to seeing the school social workers guiding tours through their neighborhoods with newly hired Granadilla School teachers to enhance the teachers’ understanding of their students’ home lives. We also learned that the community members receive these tours well as the social workers are well-known and liked around Granadilla. Oops. We should have included the social workers in our conversations about our apprehensions to check for accuracy in our assumptions about offending the Granadilla residents.
- Prior to the tour we had already decided how we felt about the tour. We repeated these preconceived notions in an ongoing monologue about how we didn’t want to be those well-intentioned Americans who volunteer in developing countries and post exploitative photos on social media of peoples’ homes and poor living conditions just to appear altruistic to our friends in the U.S. We repeated this monologue to ourselves and to each other. However, no matter how well-meaning, a monologue consists of only one opinion. It is not designed for more than one person to contribute nor to transform one’s own perception. Dialogues involve two-way communication between two or more parties who hold different views for the purpose of learning and understanding. Even when our monologues are well-intentioned messages of upholding others’ dignity and human rights, they still are not collaborative discussions with those whose rights we seek to uphold, nor with those who are already actively working to uphold those rights in a particular community. Thus, in working cross-culturally, we must integrate people who identify with oppressed groups into our discussions and our efforts to restore their rights and their communities. We shouldn’t talk about them, without them.
- When collaborating cross-culturally, we must keep in mind that offense may occur due to long-held stereotypes, prejudices, or simply misinformation. For instance, a classmate shared that the school social workers were surprised to hear in a conversation on the tour that poverty exists in the U.S. This lack of awareness of poverty in the U.S. probably contributed to the social workers’ judgments of us as “too good” to be in such close proximity to extreme poverty in Costa Rica. I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that people in developing regions may see me as wealthy simply because I am American, when in the U.S. I am definitely not considered wealthy. I believe that we must facilitate opportunities to have honest and ongoing dialogue between social workers and community members about their differing identities and the prejudices between the two, in order to avoid or work through offense when damage has been done.
As social workers, we must engage in dialogue with communities rather than self-righteous monologues in which we assume we know it all about the proper way to go about advocating for social justice. We cannot allow our assumptions or opinions that develop from our research, our past work experience, or our credentials to get in the way of our willingness to learn new things, and formulate new opinions. In fact, we must position ourselves to always learn and relearn from multicultural communities. We must ask meaningful questions and have intentional and productive conversations. We must be honest about our differences and our prejudices to clear up miscommunications and misinformation. We must be brave and vulnerable enough to address our differences openly and respectfully so that we can effectively collaborate with multicultural communities in our efforts to restore human rights.