Let’s look at the final part of a volunteer’s journey. The end of a volunteer period, the return to Europe, goodbyes, reunions and reverse culture shock – so goes the check-list. It ends with one big, open question: “What now?”
Here is an option: keep going. “Bring It to the Public” (BITTP), or journal period, wraps the program up, but it can be another journey on another continent. Mine was 3 months in United States of America.
Across the ocean, One World Institute has a sister school – One World Center Michigan. Besides running volunteer programs similar to ours, OWC has just launched a new project, called One World, One Chance that addresses climate change. I found out about OWC Michigan because they posted a call for short-term volunteers. As my teammates were going to share their volunteer experiences in schools in Europe, I accepted the challenge to do the same in USA.
First, the job: promote OWC volunteer programs in American universities for 2.5 months. We – a teacher from OWC and I – travelled in a car, moving at least twice a week, and lived with generous locals, who agreed to host us via Couchsurfing. In result, we visited over 30 universities and spread thousands of posters about our volunteer activity in the states of Oklahoma and Texas.
On one hand, you will not find postering on any list of dream jobs. However, we did it in universities, the centers of American education and development, where we met students and professors who cared about humanitarian and environmental topics. In between working hours, I had chances to talk about living conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa with a development economy class and to write about my volunteer experiences for a couple of university newspapers. I appeared a bit strange – a European speaking about Africa in USA. However, the timing was ripe for stranger things; it was the very beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential term.
Therefore, secondly, BITTP became an investigation of the American condition. We found over 20 Couchsurfing hosts of different backgrounds – urban and rural, Northern and Southern, rich and poor, mixed and segregated. They included me in community events, like the latest all-American pastime – protest marches. “I became an activist because of Trump,” was a confession I heard often, as we rallied with thousands for a march against the immigrant ban in Dallas, March for Science in Chicago and People’s Climate March in Washington.
The state we got to know the best was Texas. It is famous for oil, NASA, cowboys, low gun control, lower taxes, and Republican voters. Surprisingly, Texan cities appeared mostly liberal, so I took a week to hitchhike in the rural Southwest to find “conservatives” and learn about their lives. It was a trip of 1100 miles. On the way, I stayed both with locals and in the middle of nowhere. My destination was Big Bend National Park. Far from Texan flatlands, GMO fields and factory plants, it is a land of deserts, forests, canyons and the Rio Grande river, which borders Mexico, adding another twist to the experience.
Most of the time, Americans were eager to share their stories, with which they surprised me as much as mine surprised them. Before the end of my volunteer period, I had assumed it is all about giving presentations – no, it was conversations. Comparing life in the capitalist, consumerist U.S. after travelling in Asia and volunteering in Sub-Saharan Africa paints a bigger picture, accenting issues that all continents face. The question of “What now?” returns, but now you and I have some ideas to pursue.
Alise – May Team 2015