The Santa Clara
November 2, 2017
The fourteen-year-old I was tutoring stared at me defiantly and said, “You’re just here for hours, huh?”
I couldn’t deny what he claimed—my Experiential Learning for Social Justice (ELSJ) required 16 hours of volunteering at Cristo Rey. But I felt the need to defend myself nonetheless. I told him I did have to volunteer, but I also liked doing it because I want to be a teacher. After that, the boys at the table decided I was okay.
His comment stayed with me for a long time. I thought about all the other Santa Clara volunteers who couldn’t claim a love of teaching as a way of gaining the acceptance of Cristo Rey students.
A lot of students were just there for hours. I was just there for hours too. It hadn’t occurred to me before then that these students could pick up on the obligatory nature of our volunteering and were—appropriately—wary of it.
The ELSJ (or Arrupe placement) component of our core curriculum was established as a way of providing “Santa Clara students with opportunities for experiencing the gritty reality of the world, thinking critically about the world, responding to its suffering and engaging it constructively.”
Following in the classic Jesuit tradition of being “people for others,” ELSJ’s challenge us to think deeply about what marginalized or otherwise struggling communities are going through. In theory, this is meant to incite empathy and motivate us to rally behind a cause.
However, interest in our Arrupe sites rarely extends beyond the classroom.
I’m all for reflecting on our privilege as college going students but I’m just not sure our “enlightenment” should come at the cost of the people we’re supposed to help. By dropping into these communities just as quickly as we leave them, we’re promoting a false understanding of their needs and a false understanding of how to respond to those needs.
We’re also shifting the focus away from addressing deeply-rooted social issues through social policies (prevention) to short-term treatments like volunteerism.
The high turnover rate and the relative superficially of our contributions do more harm to the communities than good. Children especially are vulnerable to attachment and subsequent feelings of abandonment once those mandated 16 hours are completed.
In our effort to witness “the gritty reality of the world,” we end up infantilizing or pitying the communities without fully appreciating the complexities of the world they exist in. In an anthropology class with an ELSJ, I was told to document my observations of the adults in the program who were physically and mentally disabled. I found myself othering them, only writing about their “suffering” or what surprised me about them. All this information gleaned from the two hours I spent sitting in the back of the classroom watching them since I wasn’t qualified to do anything else.
The focus of an Arrupe shouldn’t be on what we’re doing for them. This mindset is problematically reminiscent of a white savior complex—putting ourselves above them because we know better and have an ability to save them. It’s as if these people who we make contact with are not people so much as they are metaphors. Symbols of poverty or disability meant to tug at our heartstrings and motivate us to make a difference.
But people aren’t metaphors. These communities don’t exist to teach us life lessons. We can learn from them, but that act of learning shouldn’t force them to display their suffering for us like animals at the zoo.
Ultimately, I’m an advocate of the ELSJ core requirement. It’s important students step outside the Claradise bubble. But professors who teach ELSJ classes and the students in them need to be more mindful of the impact their presence has—the good and the bad. There are moments when you form a genuine connection and moments when you fail to see the bigger picture.
Our placement sites know we’re not just volunteering for the sake of it. The least we can do is acknowledge that. The least we can do is ask them what they need from us during the short time we get to be there. Let them define the parameters of the relationship and let them define their own needs. Only then can we truly be people for others.
Perla Luna is a junior English and sociology major and the Managing Editor of The Santa Clara.