VOLUNTOURISM – NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED
Words & Photos @bearcourt
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.” – Barak Obama
Voluntourism – No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
No good deed goes unpunished.
There is a difference between professional do-gooders and amateur do-gooders.
Have you ever felt the calling to do something larger than yourself, to give back to “the world” since you have it so good? We’ve all seen footage of starving African children covered in flies, holding out their dusty hands for a donation. The photographer does their job well and the next thing you know, your heartstrings are getting tugged and you want to “do something,” “help people who need help” as Derek Zoolander amply put. And we think, “man that sucks, I wish I could… but… ( I’m broke too, too much going on right now, they want commitment, why can’t I just do my own thing to give back? Moving on…).”
I know I’ve felt it. Especially given the life I lead as a professional model, actor, artist, designer, you name it living out the most self-centered existence I could imagine in none other than Hollywood California. We’ve got it bad here. When all of your value rests on what you can create, you end up spending vast amounts of time bettering yourself to deliver more. Sounds nice right, but there comes a time when you feel like your whole existence is living for you, and it’s time to do something for someone else… the BIG someone else… humanity, if you will.
If you browse around the internet, like I did, you might get disappointed. Searching for a cause becomes like speed dating, where you submit a profile trying to sound like you just got nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, spend Friday nights at orientation in a room full of other hopefuls giving each other a “we’re on the same team” grin. And you get suspicious of other people’s intentions, “so, like, why are you signing up to give blood and taking a selfie with the needle?”
Either we care so much that millions of dollars are entrusted to fill-in-the-blank.org to assuage a privilege guilt that has been passed down since since “The White Man’s Burden” of yesteryear. Or we don’t care at all and continue the hunt to achieve society’s picture of success – material wealth and popularity. The middle ground is murky. Big Brother Big Sister wants you to give up months of your life, sponsoring a child requires you to fork over part of your month-to-month paycheck, the Red Cross has been found unable to deliver on their promises, and reading the mission statements of a million other non-profits leaves you feeling like you have to give over your brand new iPhone X to qualify as generous.
And before you take that selfie to show all the good you are doing, consider quickly how you might look like a parody of what you want to be. Just take a look at Barbie Savior on IG, they hilariously capture this new world attitude of poverty porn, voluntourism and the white-savior complex – doing good to look good at the sacrifice of dignity and privacy of the very people you are appearing to help.
But that isn’t my story… exactly. Over the past decade I have tried, not once, but multiple times to scratch that do-gooder itch by creating my own amateur doing-good ideas. Within me are two forces of balance that are always tugging at each other for more attention. They ask me constantly, “what are you doing for yourself?” and in contrast, “What are you doing for other people?” It’s always made sense to me that the world is an organism, and I am a cell within that organism. Everything I take and use to survive doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it moves through all of the other electric currents connecting me to you. And if a part of the organism is ill, the entire being suffers. We all suffer when misfortune happens on the planet. A balance of giving and receiving is the path to a fullness of love. So I began talking about it.
It started at Umami in Los Feliz in 2013, at the bar complaining over drinks to my best friend while the bartender flirted, drawing a cartoon t-rex on a bar napkin while hooking us up with free drinks. By my third, I was in a pity state – a common theme of that time – for everything from drinking too much, giving up on church, becoming a self absorbed artist wannabe, and suffering my best friend to listen. I had no vision, but an aching heart with no direction.
My parents started me young with background of volunteering at 4H as an awkward homeschool kid, a training camp for overseas missions as a gangly preteen, and later I chose to go on a few international mission trips as a bright-eyed teenager at church. And since moving to Los Angeles, the city seemed to scream self-importance, and it was making me sick at heart. Volunteering in my 20’s sounded like real fix for the kind community love I was longing for.
Just then, my best friend got a saucy text from a love interest coming to town. He needed five volunteers to sort the pantry at St. Francis Center in Downtown LA and asked if she knew anyone who might go. The Universe delivers quick! I quickly blasted an invite on Facebook and an unlikely, awesome crew of people offered up their time. So cool to see that my longing to do good was shared with others! I’m pretty sure we were dancing on the bar by the end of the night.
Volunteering has a certain electricity about it. High fives with fists full of brussels sprouts and after party hiking… our volunteer day was one of my favorite days that year, and the next thing we knew, my best friend and I formed a Facebook group for random volunteering named Brussels Sprouts High Five.
The idea was, since most places asked for huge commitments, I sought out existing non-profits looking for day players to help fill their volunteer gap. It operated on a whim, whenever either of us had time we would contact a kitchen or find a cause we believed in and ask friends in our network to give their time. The leadership was in the hands of professional do-gooders like The Midnight Mission, Urban Sustainable Initiatives, NAMI, whoever we would show up for. My joy was to organize a day for friends to fill their time slots. Bring the army.
But for as many hours we would put in, it somehow felt like it wasn’t enough. I was completing a circuit in someone else’s giving machine, and it began to resemble speed dating all over again. For all of the countless places my feet landed, they never planted. There was never a moment when I thought “here is where I can use my gifts of aestheticism and storytelling.” More and more, it looked like elevating someone else’s passion, which, as we all know, doesn’t satisfy forever.
And so began my first inspiration to try voluntourism. My work brought an opportunity to travel the exotic country of India, again, this time in the southern jungle of Kerala, four hours outside of Thiruvananthapuram to a Sivananda Ashram.
The gig was to paint a mural inside a Hindu temple and bookstore with the bonus benefit of taking part in their two week intensive yoga and meditation program.
And having been to South India before, my memory served up imagery of men in sarongs and women in colorful saris, barefoot with sore and calloused feet. And in my head I saw a need; To bring shoes to these people, because they must not be able to afford them. Looking back I can already see how undeveloped this idea was. But I stuck to my guns and started a campaign to collect donated shoes on Brussels Sprouts High Five.
The first week flew by in a hurry with two bags of shoes showing up at my doorstep, and successful collection Saturday at Silverlake Arts Market. Passionate about reaching level 1, I sent a memo to my former church in Jacksonville Florida and they blasted the congregation with a 50 foot projection of my bulletin for a month. I was getting emails with pictures of shoe boxes filling up hallways at the chapel, and questions for when the donation will be “over.”
These emails just made me smile so big, but the job wasn’t finished. Who would accept the shoes and deliver them on the other side? In the dead of night I googled organizations in Kochi, where I would be flying in. At 4AM PST I called a Catholic church that had a strong website on Skype. The phone rang out in a foreign tone, and when someone finally answered I delivered a script I wrote in the most simple English I could come up with. After repeating it several times, whoever it was did not understand and passed the call on. By the fourth person, exhausted by the effort but still smiling, the conversation pinged back and forth, word by word, and I could tell the heavily accented man was in a hurry, but I felt like my intention was understood. They would accept my donation by mail, preferably. I started to panic at the post office. WIth no air conditioning, the line of impatient customers grew behind me while the postal worker helped me weigh my very large, very heavy box.
To ship this weight and bulk worth of cargo to India was over $300. I was deflated. She didn’t know of any non-profits who help with international shipping either. And calculating what it would cost to ship my church in Florida’s portion of the donation stopped ideas from forming all together. Standing there, looking a bit lost, someone stepped in suddenly. A complete stranger with a trim beard and expensive sunglasses generously offered to cover all of the costs. Just like that.
It’s moments like these that make me wonder… Are there angels who help along the way?
Anyway, in Florida I had two shopping carts full of shoes waiting for me. Someone in the congregation, bless her, went and bought an entire row of brand new childrens water shoes from Walmart. The whole event was overwhelming in part because the Pastor of the church I went to since I was five was speaking to me on a first name basis. And though this was a prime opportunity to soak up the respect radiating from straight toothed, suburban strangers, I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing… and that cast me into extreme insecurity covered up by comments like, “yeah, I just don’t want to go back to India without anything to offer, you know?” “I thought about buying a case of reading glasses… those are expensive…” “Just glad to do something more with the opportunity… help someone…” All while somehow thinking that this adventure won’t save anyone from poverty… It might put a Band-aid on an open wound…
Moving closer to the trip, with no guile left to test the shipping gods again, I drove to every Goodwill in Jacksonville and scored five large suitcases, totaling less than $25. The newest, most petite shoes – women’s and men’s – made the top of the sorting piles, including all of the childrens shoes. What shoes didn’t fit in the suitcases, I arranged to have fork-lifted into a Salvation Army truck and donated to the local homeless population.
Now, with five extra heavy weight suitcases on top my personal luggage, I was calculating how I would possibly transport these across the world with only two hands. Lucky I wasn’t traveling to India alone. My best friend was coming out for the adventure and he has the body of a wrestler, fondly christented “Beast of Steel” at the airport when he lifted suitcases over his head. But once we were in India, it was absurdly cheap to hire someone to do that for us.
On delivery day, the depth of miscommunication became way more apparent. Not only had they not received the shoes we shipped them already, they had no idea we were even coming. Later, I came to discover there is a customs tax on international freight that the Catholic church refused to pay.
As awkward as it was to wait while several confused men attempted to understand why I was there with five huge suitcases, they gradually accepted. And a younger man who waited till the end to share his English with me, let me know that they would have a special give away on Sunday and bring the kids’ shoes to a local school known for hosting children in poverty.
It was a sigh of relief, walking into the balmy city of Kochi, empty handed. My heart was struggling with the perfectionism within, that I could have done this better. But the whole effort was worth it, that a quarter of the shoes I collected actually landed where I wanted them, on the feet of people who need them in Kerala. And I’m confident that at least a portion of the others had good fates too.
And looking over the whole journey, if I were to do it again, I would gladly take $425 and buy shoes in India and organize a giveaway after, instead of bringing shoes all the way across the many ponds. Opening up the floor to friends and the church to be a part of the physical giving made a lot of serotonin receptors grow over here in America, but didn’t do nearly as much good as just buying out a box or two of shoes at an Indian wholesale market would do for the people I was trying to help. I walked away feeling incomplete for what I couldn’t provide and how poorly I managed money, instead of believing that I had used my energy and focus to ease some of the pain in a stranger’s life.
Time passed quickly, and my career took on a new form as I fell in love with silhouettes and fabric. Fashion stole the spotlight, and like an architect, I dove into learning everything I could about textiles, manufacturing and distribution so I could construct something pure and beautiful without human suffering. All of the research I did educated me on just how impactful the second largest polluting industry in the world really is.
Fast Fashion enslaves millions of people in a cycle of debt, much like indentured servitude did 150 years ago in America. It exhausts the land, promotes GMO agriculture, uses carcinogenic chemicals to break down and dye fabrics, and is filling landfills faster than outdated electronics. So what could I do to tell this story? To help curve the excess, waste and abuse in this industry? Finally, I had a cause I felt passionate about.
Many ideas came to mind quickly in my loft in DTLA – educating college kids, building my own sustainable brand, protests, and street art. But the quick fix solution came in the form of, yes – voluntourism! Fate would have it that my boyfriend’s brother was getting married in Bali, and I was invited. Just maybe I could drop into one of the places I saw in The True Cost and capture someone’s story, bring it back and make it real to the Western World – because, let’s face it, things over there can seem like fiction because they are so far away.
Our layover just happened to be in Jakarta – one of the biggest textile manufacturers on the planet. There had to be something amiss there… So I donned my googling hat and got to it, discovering that the island of Java Indonesia contains the most polluted river in the world, the Citarum River. It’s no understatement, this river is foul. The color streaked water source snakes through tropical jungle and villages that are pressed against textile factories. On any given day, its surface resembles a floating, loaded dumpster, and what lies beneath is even more concerning. Decades of carcinogenic chemicals course through its veins where villagers wash their linens and even bathe, settling as sediment in the riverbed that’s used for soil. The result is boils, cancer, blindness and a decreased way of life.
My approach stemmed from my degree in journalism and international studies. I felt confident I could tell this story; if not in entirety, at least give a glimpse into the suffering we cause there. I took to the internet again, this time targeting Greenpeace. In a swift response, they told me to screw off and not to bother them or anyone associated with them for that matter. Something to do with keeping up their image and likely not having the time to deal with outsiders. Confused, but determined, my boyfriend and I sought out individuals who work with Greenpeace on Facebook instead. And we lucked out! A week before the trip a high-up-there environmentalist responded to my inquiry and offered to show us around Bandung, the city on the banks of the Citarum.
We were off to the races… In theory. I booked a hotel in Bandung, a rental car to drive us across Java and mentally prepared to hit ground zero of fast-fashion.
Then as we were about to fly into Jakarta, our Greenpeace contact asked for $400 for the interview, $400 I didn’t have. At this point we were about to drive into one of the filthiest, most toxic places in the world for no apparent reason at at all anymore. I was being punished for wanting to do-good and I couldn’t understand why.
The irony struck, that even though I had collegiate training, I was as amateur as they come to leading my own giving adventures, and maybe playing out a voluntourism fantasy was just as bad as my gut told me it was to start. Why else was everything going wrong? I wasn’t prepared, hadn’t triple checked my budget, and now I was spending precious funds irresponsibly, again. And I pulled my boyfriend into it, adding frustration and embarrassment to the whole front end of our vacation.
And if it weren’t for his determination, we might not have gone out that first day to explore the river bed and the open pipes running colored water from Gistex, a factory that Nike, GAP, and other major brands support with their business.
Just as we wrote off this trip as experience for our eyes only, only minutes down the way out of Bandung, I got a text on What’s App from a new member of Greenpeace, willing to meet me within the hour with a translator outside of the factory.
Hallelujah! Our group of five took the camera down the filthy Citarum River bed, where I asked our Greenpeace guide Adi about the environmental impact while we swatted away mosquitoes… Slightly concerned for dengue and malaria. Not only did Adi host us in upright professionalism, but we pursued a dirt road along the river to the handmade home of a large family, scattered with chickens and trash. Our wonderful translator who speaks both Indonesian and Javanese gave us the background of the older man we interviewed.
“Small fishes always come near my body when I bathe but the fishes now is gone. Now, there are corpses that have stayed for 2 weeks or 8 days with incomplete parts. I bring them without using any glove. I am used to it, this river.”
The magic of spontaneity and the possible impact it could have made us all high. It may have been one of the best days of my life. We took an incredible risk, the odds stacked against us, to focus on four hours of time spent genuinely listening to this man’s struggle with the very fast fashion we have all touched. Would you wear GAP if you knew millions of families like his live in a toxic wasteland to make it?
That’s the point, isn’t it? Everything in your home, every piece of fabric in your home carries the history of all of the hands it took to make it. No one operates in a vacuum. We are a world organism, and we are sick. Their suffering is our suffering if we continue to buy from brands who practice unethical labor with little stewardship to the environment.
Adi and the old man’s stories have yet to be shared. Instead of jumping into a random idea to do good, I’ve incubated something new and invited people I respect to help me do something larger than myself. From trying and failing, I’ve learned to surround myself with people I trust can follow through, to do all of the research before launching, and to align myself with professional do-gooders. Most importantly, I’ve learned to carry on and never let the hard lessons define you.