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Slum tourism, empathy, and study abroad

At Emoya Estate in Bloemfontein, South Africa, visitors can experience what it is to live in a local village — heating your own water over a fire and using “a long drop effect” outside toilet. The corrugated iron chalets may look like poor people live in them, but they are carefully constructed for tourists with additional inside plumbing, wifi, and aircon, located within the safety of a game preserve where local folks can’t get in. The village is touted as the “experience of a lifetime!” “Township tours” in Soweto bus tourists through very low income neighborhoods to experience “authentic” South Africa. More politically correct “social justice tours” also day-visit, but with an explicit narrative of exclusion and oppression.

These types of “slum tourism” are now booming in many low income countries, including India and Brazil. Some researchers say organized visits are not exploitative, but rather provide a means for low-income neighborhoods to empower their own regeneration. Others explain how these simply reinforce dominant narratives of poverty’s face as dirty and violent,  and are always highly problematic. But, this debate about the broader moralities aside, does this type of short term engagement actually serve a function because it can grow empathy and de-strigmatize poverty? And if so, does it do it in ways that are useful? For example, can we do use it as professors to encourage critical self-learning in our students of the type that can pay off for them in across their careers for the public good? I teach in our ASU global health undergraduate major. Many of these students will end up in the types of career paths where there is the option and opportunity to make a difference that counts.

in-slummibusHistorically, we do see have excellent examples of how such poverty tourism can work as a driver for truly profound and desperately needed reform — because it encourages empathy among those in the position to help. In London, where we run summer study abroad programs on the history of health in the city, we pore over Charles Booth’s truly marvelous “poverty maps,” then do a guided walking tour of the former tenement areas of the East End. In the 1880s, the East End became a place where “ladies and gentlemen were induced to don common clothes and go out in the highways and byways to see people of whom they had heard, but of whom they were as ignorant as if they were inhabitants of a strange country”. [New York Times, September 14, 1884]. Over time, outings to interact with people living in the East End’s dreadful crowded, diseased conditions moved beyond voyeurism and spurred a sympathetic turn in public opinion. This led to a proliferation of charity and highly effective social reform because people in positions to enact change decided it was the right thing to do.

In the last 150 years, democracy has spread, wealth disparities have exaggerated, the middle class has emerged, new technologies have transformed the real and imagined distances between people, and massive global movement and displacement is normal. So, is exposing relatively privileged people (i.e., US students) to poverty still an effective strategy for building empathy in ways that could matter? Ochina interviewver the last two decades, I have taken many groups of 20-35 undergrad students to visit a wide array of low income communities throughout the globe. For example, we have met with residents of migrant communities on the outskirts of Beijing (see pic), seniors in the “black belt” of rural Georgia, people passing through Mexican border towns, and stayed in indigenous communities in Belize and Fiji.

Having traveled with 100s of US students over a long career, what lessons I have learned about how experiences with “poverty” can grow US students real empathy for others? For one, seeing or living material poverty – the discomfort of using a long drop or having to boil water – does very little to build it. That is, the slum tourism approach per se doesn’t do much to really encourage lasting empathy.

What seems to work is time spent talking with people in the context of their everyday lives.  The way we now do this is by requiring students to interview people as part of their coursework when we visit these communities. When you recruit someone as an informant, they are already doing you favor — and this shifts the power dynamic of the conversation in the right direction. Interviewing also encourages active listening and rewards curiosity. The interview itself provides a guide for starting a conversation that might otherwise not reach below the surface. It also helps students to interview people in their homes or community centers, where they can see people in the context of their everyday lives — loving their kids, helping their neighbors, and dealing with the grind. Many students really don’t want to do the interviews, and especially they don’t want to ask “other” people to be interviewed (we provide students with a translator as needed, but they still need to do the asking). But they do it, and they get through it, and some even admit it wasn’t too bad. But it is almost always very challenging. But to make sure the experience isn’t completely overwhelming, we now have learned the strategy of inserting the community/interview experience into a 2-3 day blocks within a longer 3-4 week study abroad program, so students are getting short but meaningful exposures to “poverty” that are safely separated warm showers and recovery and reflection time.

They do get it though, albeit eventually. We recently did a survey of students who went on programs over the last 7 years and many admitted that while they found it difficult and even hated it at the time that they now credit it as the “most valuable, single thing I did in college”. Maybe even really an “experience of a lifetime!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Late Lessons Stigmabusters Uncategorized

Alex Brewis