Colour Coded Activism & Voluntourism

Colour Coded Activism & Voluntourism

Like a lot of people during COVID, I have spent a good deal of time cleaning. My office is spotless. The cupboards in the house are similarly tidy. In fact, the whole house is bereft of clutter. Except of course my closest. Again, like many of us, I have found my closest full to the brim with clothes I haven’t worn in months. But most obvious to me these days is my collection of colour coordinated t-shirts.

Although I am pretty much a black t-shirt kind of person, my colourful collection of t-shirts is a telltale sign of our times. Over the years as an educator, I have acquired a multitude of t-shirts so that I am able to show my support for various initiatives. I have my Pink Shirt to celebrate and support diversity while raising greater awareness in stopping homophobic, transphobic and all forms of bullying. I have an Orange Shirt to promote awareness about the Indian residential school system and the impact it has had on Indigenous communities for over a century—an impact recognized as cultural genocide, and an impact that continues today. I also have a Yellow Shirt to support positive mental health and well-being.

I do not for a minute want to diminish the good work and educational impact of these annual efforts. If even one person is helped or educated as a result of my wearing a coloured t-shirt to promote a worthy cause than it is well worth the effort. My issue is with what happens the other 365 days of the year.

I would suggest that most people who wear a specific shirt on a designated day to support a cause do so for all the right reasons and with nothing but the best of intentions. As well, I would suggest that they also live in a way that promotes the ongoing efforts of the causes they support. But what about the one-day colour coded activists who do not necessarily live the message of a cause the rest of the year? For example, I know quite a few bullies – both children and adults – who proudly promote Pink Shirt Day once a year but act in a way that is antithetical to the Pink Shirt Day credo the rest of the year. Similarly, I know more than a few individuals who support Indigenous Rights once a year and that’s it.

Ongoing activism and support of important causes came to mind this past week when I read that the ministry of education in Ontario has “reduced to a minimum of 20 hours of community involvement activities. This recognizes that graduating students have had barriers to earning their community involvement hours last school year and there may be continued barriers this school year.​” I certainly understand that it has been difficult for students to gain volunteer hours, but the need has not gone away for many of the programs that volunteers support and organize. In fact, in most cases, the need has probably increased since the onset of COVID19

By reducing the number, the Ministry has certainly identified that there is an issue resulting from the pandemic that needs to be addressed. But unfortunately, they have done little, in their own words, to “encourage students to develop awareness and understanding of civic responsibility and of the role they can play and the contributions they can make in supporting and strengthening their communities.” Rather than a when the going gets tough the tough get going message, it’s more of a when the going gets tough we reduce the demands.
This ties in with the annual notion of certain events. If there isn’t more to a school’s involvement in bullying awareness throughout the year, then kids learn very little. In fact, some schools do not openly support coloured shirt days because they say that every day is Pink Shirt Day or Orange Shirt Day so the need to underscore it on a particular day is redundant. Of course, some of these schools have amazing anti-bullying programs or clubs that truly do live and breath the messages espoused. On the other hand, some schools give lip service throughout the year so in fact, holding a one-day annual event makes even less sense.

Similarly, there has been a real increase in recent years of volunteer tourism or voluntourism. Kids are jetted off all over the globe to do good. In my opinion, there are a number of problemswith this concept. First and foremost, there is more than enough need in our own backyards – quite literally – so kids need not go much further than outside their own doors to make a difference. And secondly, voluntourists spend so little time doing good that they really make little if any significant impact. If anything, voluntourism tends to perpetuate patronising attitudes and unhelpful notions about the places where they travel.

What is the answer and how do we go beyond colour coded activism, voluntourism and ensuring that kids develop a life long affinity to doing good? I mean we want them to be life long learners, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to be life-long community builders? In terms of the current ministry mandate, I would suggest that students can very easily find opportunities either locally to attain just as many hours or perhaps they can produce a project that educates or somehow supports a worthy local cause. Lots of agencies and support services have adjusted to offering online services so there is no doubt still a need for volunteers just a different one. I understand that we are already asking a good deal of our educators, but carving off some of their academic time to incorporate service-learning would be a win-win.

In terms of on-going and not just one-day colour-coded support for a cause, parents and teachers need to work together. Far too few parents actively assist and endeavour to educate their children on the benefits of community engagement. It really is incumbent on parents – especially in times such as these – to look beyond signing an annual check or running in an annual event to really get involved on a regular basis. As is always the case, kids learn a lot from watching their parents. In this regard, they wouldn’t just watch but would actively engage with their parents which is another incalculable benefit.

And what about voluntourists? Of course right now and for the foreseeable future there is no international travel and limited national travel to be had so looking inward is a lot easier. Again, it is incumbent upon schools and families to figure out what they can do locally to help others. In fact, it is no doubt easier to support ongoing systemic change locally because the system is known to us and the proximity to the cause or agency allows for greater vigilance and oversight.

I have been fortunate to have travelled to other countries to assist local initiatives supported by local schools. Though our efforts were appreciated and for the most part positive and ongoing, there is more to community building than offering free labour for a few days on an international service project. The most enjoyable impactful involvement I have had the opportunity to engage in with students is an ongoing Feed the Hungry initiative organized by a colleague at an inner-city church. One Saturday each month he takes 10 kids under his wing and gets them involved and educated on a significant issue right outside their door. His efforts are so impactful that students continue to be involved after they have graduated high school.

I want to underscore that I firmly believe in supporting worthwhile annual evets if there is ongoing in-service and follow-up. One-off annual fundraisers or dress down days may help temporarily but they do nothing to perpetuate an on-going, lifelong community involvement mindset. Nor does international voluntourism that aims to do good prior to heading off to the local bucket list tourist trap. Getting away from colour coded activism isn’t all that difficult and just like community involvement itself is well worth the effort.





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