This is the fifth and final article in my series about Pathfinders Project for American Atheist magazine.
In my earlier articles, I made frequent use of the phrase “humanist service” as though it is self-evident what the phrase implies. But what is humanist service, really? I don’t just mean service done by humanists; I mean service designed by humanists as an expression of humanist principles. What does that look like? How should the Humanist Service Corps differ from religious service programs or even other secular service models?
When I first launched Pathfinders Project, I hadn’t fully formulated those questions, but I did attempt to put human interaction front and center. I hypothesized that the service we completed would provide a meaningful context for intercultural exchange and build the trust necessary to have fruitful conversations about differences in religious beliefs. This turned out to be true for each of our ten projects. Many of the devoutly religious people we worked alongside appreciated the fact that we were there neither to convert nor to deconvert them. Others freely admitted that until they collaborated with us, they had assumed all atheists were immoral.
With the easy success of these conversations came the realization that we had been posing the wrong question. Instead of asking where we could travel safely as atheists, we should have been asking how we could volunteer internationally without causing harm. This is a question demanded of us by our humanism because even careful volunteers can do damage merely by being visible in otherwise homogeneous communities. It is difficult to “first, do no harm” when the very image of the foreign volunteer reinforces the colonial concept that change—whether desired or undesired—is driven by forces external to the community.
If there is a responsible way forward, perhaps we can find it first by looking at counter-examples. We know that many volunteers fall into the trap of wanting to personally do as much as possible in the short amount of time they have. Although the volunteer may find such work fulfilling, the number of children they teach or the number of wells they dig do not necessarily create sustainable change for the community. In fact, programs that use volunteers to fill existing skill gaps—rather than to train locals to fill those gaps—directly undermine sustainable change. Sometimes there is no skill gap at all, and insufficiently trained volunteers compete against local professionals who are at a competitive disadvantage in a resource-poor environment, since the volunteers work for free. When these programs move on to other locations, they often fail to leave behind trained teachers to continue the education or skilled technicians to maintain the wells.
The volunteers who participate in these programs tend to focus on what they bring to the situation. But when volunteers see their worth in terms of the gaps they can fill in a community, they necessarily emphasize what the community lacks, rather than what it has. A better approach is for volunteers to help the community leverage its strengths to design and implement solutions for what it needs. Volunteer programs of this kind should always be moving toward the point where they are no longer necessary. If the solution includes a permanent role for volunteers, something is amiss.
This admonition against focusing on deficits might seem to contradict the fact that most service programs exist to address serious problems like insufficient access to clean water, poor sanitation, and lack of resources for school or healthcare. But a community is so much more than a list of problems to solve, and we can’t approach our work with a formula like “community lacks X, volunteer brings/builds X, problem solved.” This thinking is not only dehumanizing and debilitating, it is also demonstrably false. Volunteers who approach communities without an openness to learn from the residents overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of meaningful human interaction: that we often give most profoundly by receiving.
Programs with good intentions and negative consequences give us a pretty good idea of what humanist service is not. It is not service that blithely or purposefully puts the contribution of the volunteer on display for locals. It is not service that sees the assets of volunteers as the permanent solution to deficits within the community. It is not service designed without the input and oversight of local leaders.
So, what is humanist service?
Humanist service focuses not only on what resources the community lacks, but also on the emotional and psychological needs of the people involved. Humanist service seeks neither to convert nor to deconvert. Instead, it aims to connect by focusing on shared values. Humanist service emphasizes the growth rather than the sacrifice of the volunteer.
Above all, humanist service empowers communities. The first way we can do this is to wait for an invitation to collaborate before volunteering in communities that are not our own. The second thing we can do is just that: collaborate. Although we may bring valuable skills, perspectives, and resources with us, this does not entitle us to dictate what solutions to implement. Even when we think we see a more efficient or effective way to do things, we must weigh that relative value against the immense value of a community’s self-determination. Sustainable change occurs when community leaders develop their own skills and confidence by taking the lead in designing and implementing community-driven solutions to problems identified by members of that community.
In 2015, Humanist Service Corps volunteers will work in Northern Ghana to support a program that restores dignity to women who are victims of witch-hunting. These women have been banished from their communities to live in “witch camps” on areas of land that are believed to rob them of their powers. Although the women are relatively safe from violence so long as they remain in the camps, the living conditions are deplorable. They do not have adequate access to clean water, nutrition, shelter, or healthcare, and they are unaware of or are unable to exercise legal protections under Ghanaian and international laws. (These women were the subject of my article in the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist.)
For at least the next 3-5 years, the Humanist Service Corps will place four volunteers a year in Northern Ghana. The short-term goal is to improve the standard of living in the witch camps. The long-term goal is to eliminate the dynamics which lead to the violent exile, and sometimes even the deaths, of these women. Consistent with the principles outlined above, we are returning to Northern Ghana after receiving an invitation to do so from Songtaba, an advocacy organization that empowers women and girls to take up leadership positions in their communities, schools, and local assemblies. We will support Songtaba in the design and implementation of programs that bring community organizations together and train local leaders for effective community outreach. You can learn more about our work at HumanistServiceCorps.org.
Originally published in the Fourth Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and ThoughtOne comment so far, add another ▶