Approaching New Communities

Becky DaviesBelow is a talk from 2010 Creighton grad Becky Davies,  who spoke to our Spring Break Service & Justice Trip Participants about the barriers they may experience on their trips. To find out more continue reading.

Thank you for having me today! It is such an honor to stand up here with you all. It was only a couple of years ago that I sat in your place. I am excited for the Spring Break adventures that you have ahead of you.

I am here to talk about approaching a new community. I am by no means an expert on this topic. I don’t have answers. Rather, I have quite a few questions to pose to you in order to get you thinking about this topic before you leave.

First, I want you to think about the people you are going to spend the week with. Put yourselves in their shoes. Maybe you are going to a homeless shelter, going to work with prison inmates, or working with adults in a GRE class. Someone tells you that this week, a Service group from Creighton is coming to hang out with you for the week and learn about your situation. How does this make you feel? Excited to meet new people? Maybe it will make you question: why they are coming to visit me? Does it insinuate that maybe I am broken? Maybe I need fixing.

Understand that as the visiting groups, you are asking these people to be vulnerable and to trust you. The questions that they are asking are valid, and something you need to think about before going.

I remember how when my service group got to our site, our leader took us out into the woods. We spent a couple of days cleaning trees, getting a tour, and then cleaning more trees. By the middle of the week, we asked our leader, “How come we have not actually met a local mountain person? We thought we were going to be able to hear stories, and understand their way of life.” Our leader kind of scoffed – explaining that the mountain people really didn’t feel comfortable talking to us. They were extremely timid, felt judged by outside groups, and were uncomfortable with us there.

This was a fabulous experience for us – realizing the invisible barrier that society has put into place between people of different backgrounds, cultures, and economic levels. These feelings were nothing of our wrong doing. We never did meet a local mountain person, but we left with the greatest lesson we could have asked for. We had encountered the inevitable barrier that we were all striving to cross. Some communities will let us in. Others will choose to keep private. Whatever our experience, it is important to walk away asking the same question:

Why do these barriers exist? How do we cross them tactfully?

Throughout my experiences of entering into new communities, I have boiled my reflections into 3 points that might help us to step lightly into a new place:

1. Go in ready to listen. Not to talk. As college students, we are always asked to find the answer. This is your time to stop seeking an answer. Stop trying to fix. Walk in there knowing that you know absolutely nothing about the situations you are about to encounter.

2. Be ready to be vulnerable. We are asking the people that we meet to be vulnerable, to share their lives, to teach us. The same will be required of you. Sometimes we relate best in our brokenness – don’t be afraid.

3. Be ready to jump in feet-first. Participate in everything that your hosts ask and do. And get dirty! When we allow ourselves to dive fully in we are telling our hosts, ” I am the same as you; I can do this too.”

I have a story from Ecuador that hopefully puts this into context:

Mardi Gras was one of my favorite holidays in Ecuador. They have this wonderful tradition of “Jugando Carnaval,” or Playing Carnaval, that is probably one of the more ridiculous things I have experienced. During those two weeks, all rules of societal etiquette and norms are thrown out the window. People fill up buckets of water–this can be clean or dirty water–and add food coloring, eggs, flour, whatever they have lying around the house. When someone walks by their house, they run out and douse them in water. You don’t have to know the person, and there is nothing they can do about it.

For the first week of Carnaval, the people in our neighborhood were a bit hesitant about dousing the volunteers with water. They weren’t quite sure how the gringos would react. I was fine with this. It was nice to be able to arrive to work dry and clean, while various co-workers of mine would show up drenched and in a bad mood.

The first weekend, one of my housemates and I decided we really wanted to participate. We filled up buckets of water balloons, found a bunch of the neighborhood kids, and stationed ourselves behind a big rock pile near the main road where all of the buses and motos passed by. We had a ball chucking water balloons into bus windows and drenching our neighbors and friends.

The Ecuadorians were floored by this, and word flew that the gringos were playing Carnaval. The next day, my housemates and I became the main target for all those participating in Jugando Carnival in Monte Sinai. Literally, kids station themselves behind houses and stores, ready to douse someone with every outing.

For me, being the target of Carnaval for an entire week was a bit tiresome, but incredibly endearing. For the Ecuadorians, I think the fact that we joined in the fun and made a mess of ourselves was one of the best messages we could have sent them, saying, “We accept your tradition. We will get dirty with you. We are all the same on a very basic level.”

As a recap, encountering a new community is a delicate, and very radical idea. There are preconceived notions about us that we can’t control. Why are you going? What do you want to gain from this experience? I think one of the goals should be to counter the preconceived notions that the people you are serving are different from you. You will learn more about yourself this way, and you can empower them just by listening. Remember that what you do in one week, in the long run, is not going to change their situation. Ultimately they are responsible for their own well-being. Where you go with your experiences from there is more valuable than days of cleaning trees. Just listen. Allow yourself to be touched, and you will, in addition, empower your gracious hosts.

Becky Davies
Spring Break Service Trip Guest Speaker
Biology Major
Creighton Class of 2010