Good Shepherd Volunteers (GSV) is grounded in 4 tenets; social justice, simplicity, spirituality, and community. As we prepared our application for GSV in January, we spent time reflecting on each of the tenets and what they meant to us. I have been thinking it would be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on the tenets again in preparation for the commencement of our journey. I guess this is part 1.
Honestly, social justice was not part of my vocabulary until Susan and I started applying for volunteerism. That is not to say it was not part of my life, but giving it a name certainly empowered it in my mind. As defined by the National Association of Social Workers, “Social Justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.” I would encourage you to take a moment and reflect on that.
Growing up in Marengo, I feel like I was insulated from much of the world. Although there was a varied social strata, I do not feel I was exposed to abject poverty and it was never obvious that there were greater forces that affected people’s ability to succeed. As a middle child, I knew that life was not always fair, but the idea that life could be unjust never not have registered. Looking back at college, in many ways I insulated myself and continued to be underexposed to the realities of the world.
As I look back now, I feel as though we are all born with a set of blinders, and experiences as we age cause us to remove pieces of them, trade them in for a smaller set, or take them off completely. However, something I have learned in the last year is that as a white male in America, you don’t really have to take the blinders off - ever. Everything can be rationalized when you are not the victim of injustice. Besides being married to my amazing, women’s-equality-championing wife, two articles I read that I believe helped me understand this were At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege from the Inside, by Kyle Spencer, and The Thing About White Privilege, by Melanie Curtin. Susan and I also watched an excellent, informative, and eye-opening documentary called American Promise (currently available on NetFlix).
A troubling thing to me is that I thought I was somewhat progressive. I took a Women, Blues, and Literature course in college, I have always believed in equal rights, I volunteered for a short time at the Austin Community YMCA, and some people I grew up with made fun of me for being socially liberal! I do not regret these things; the volunteering placed me on the path that led me to nursing, but I feel like I realize now that I just did not get it. I probably will never get a lot of it, but I am going to try. I suppose the first step will to not be a contributor to the problems in America, which as a white male requires effort or else I reinforce the status quo. At the same time I am learning this though, I am going to go out and try to learn what social justice means to the rest of the world. I will see what other disparities and injustices there are. I hope to learn more about social justice abroad and here at home, and when I return I hope to have more tools, better tools, to help me start to play a positive role in our society.
Social Justice in Thailand
You may ask, “What role will you play in promoting social justice in Thailand?” Here I can only tell you what I have learned from GSV who have been sending volunteers for several years, and what I know from the Sisters of Good Shepherd who have been there for over 10 years. HIV and AIDS are a significant burden on impoverished families in Thailand. Also, family support of an ill person is expected in Thailand. An example I have been told is that a sick person may not eat if they are hospitalized and family do not bring them meals.
What we believe we will be doing is preventing the flow of young women into the sex trade by helping reduce the financial burden on families who have members suffering from HIV/AIDS. Susan will be helping individuals whom have the illness earn an income by creating handmade paper goods, helping to further ease the financial burden, and assisting in the creation of a community. From what we know, HIV/AIDS carries with it a stigma that can make it difficult to earn any income in Thailand. We are going to a new country, serving a culture we do not know, and therefore placing our faith in GSV with regard to our service and the mission.
I have many worries about this service, but the most persistent is that when my time is up, I will have had a negative effect on the people I serve. I hope not to become a sideshow or distraction. I want to be cognizant when talking about America to not sensationalize our country or leave people longing for somewhere other than their home. I want to serve as an instrument of love, compassion, joy, and healing. I hope my service allows some children to grow up and know a better life than their parents otherwise may have been able to deliver. I hope that parents I work with will enjoy the ability to live a healthier life and provide for a more hopeful future for their children. I pray that all of my service is performed in a culturally sensitive, culturally relative, and socially just way. And perhaps I will be able to remove my American blinders about poverty, injustice, community, and more with regard to at least a small part of the rest of this world.