Facebook Philanthropy

By Hannah Oppenheimer

At 10:30 am on a
Saturday morning in large Latin American city, I was sitting with a group of
American students as we waited for a bus that would take us 40 minutes away to
volunteer. I was curious to meet the kids we would be playing with that day. We
were only told one thing about them–that they lived in severe poverty. Our job
was simply to play with them–soccer, arts and crafts, board games. Despite the
obvious language difference, I imagined it would be a lot similar to some of my
teaching and babysitting jobs.


And in fact, it
was. Just like my jobs in the US, the kids couldn’t seem to keep the paint from
spilling all over their clothes or the picnic tables. The boys were competing for
who knew the most bad words and the girls were trying to lie about how many
refills they’d already had of fruit punch. There was one adorable quiet boy, as
there always is. But he warmed up to me, as they always do. And as usual, I had
fun escaping the adult world to sit with young friends, who told me their
dreams while I braided their hair or asked them to tell me the stories behind their


The only difference
between this and my other jobs was the camera flashing. At the beginning of the
day, while we were waiting for the bus, another American volunteer turned to me
and said, “I just can’t wait to take photos with the kids today. We will look
so cute in the pictures! And we’ll look really helpful, too!” For those who
aren’t fluent in modern American dialect, that translates to, “Putting this on
Facebook will make me look like such a good person!”


But she wasn’t out
of the ordinary. In fact, the organization in charge of the event held an
informal orientation on the bus ride, in which they literally told us it was
okay to take a few “Facebook photos.” They said, “We’re all guilty of wanting our
photo taken with poor kids.” The volunteers were not, however, permitted to
take photos of the neighborhood because they said, “This isn’t a zoo.”


I don’t know if it
was a zoo or not. But poverty certainly seems to be the most fashionable
tourist attraction for travel abroad. And anyway, how is taking a bunch of
Americans on a bus to play with poor foreign kids any different than taking
them to a petting zoo? It’s mutually beneficial, sure. The animals get their
feed, the people get their photo. Not only do they feel good, but they look
good, too.


But sustainable?
There certainly are plenty of volunteer abroad programs that work. But I always
worry more specifically about the child-centered
volunteer programs that run on a flow of international volunteers. It’s a great
experience for everyone involved to be exposed to global cultures. But in some cases,
a global mindset isn’t in the bare necessities for the children actually
receiving the services. Kids are complex and soak in everything, so they need neighborhood
role models who consistently show up, who build relationships, who fuel local
empowerment–not just kind-hearted foreigners with good intentions, in and out
in a flash of the camera. 

Hannah Oppenheimer is a 2010 Reynolds Scholar at NYU’s College of Arts & Science.  She is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires.

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