Damian Nelson is a Queensland teacher and Network Coordinator of the Solidarity Journeys program. Solidarity Journeys is a collective of educators, returned volunteers and aid workers – informed by the principles of human rights and ecological responsibility – with a commitment to forming and strengthening attitudes of solidarity between people of the ‘Minority World’ and people of the ‘Majority World’.
From his 15 years of experience developing immersion programs for students, Damian has a depth of knowledge regarding the professional considerations that come with conducting such a journey.
A Solidarity Journeys program runs over 12-13 days, with students living in various locations and experiencing the nuances of the culture of the country they visit.
“The first couple of days are spent in a major centre, in living conditions that are basic but quite comfortable to allow students time to adjust to the new environment.
“In this time students would visit sites of historical, cultural or political significance.
“For faith based schools, students may connect with church or other aid agencies to gain insights into their work.
“The next stage involves journeying to smaller centres until eventually being in the care of a small remote village community for the core element of the journey – the ‘immersion’ experience.
“Typically we would be cared for by the church or parish community – accommodation could be in groups under the supervision of the teachers in local village accommodation, or in a community building or in a church facility such as a convent.
“This element of the journey is often the experience that has the greatest impact on the students.
“After a few days in the village we return first to a small regional centre, then back to the major centre,” Mr Nelson said.
Purpose is important
Stressing the importance of being clear about the purpose of a journey – Mr Nelson drew comparison between a solidarity and service model, highlighting the ways in which a trip founded on a service model can create a superiority divide rather than promote empathy among students.
“I have witnessed some schools visit communities in PNG and East Timor who spend a few days painting classrooms.
“When they leave the members of the local community have said to me ‘do they think we are incapable of using a paintbrush’?”
In considering the purpose of a trip, Mr Nelson said one must be mindful of what they’re really setting out to do – to provide a service that locals are likely capable of providing themselves, or to foster understanding and empathy between cultures.
“We do not operate out of a service model but a solidarity model. The service model reinforces the stereotype that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them’ whereas a solidarity approach acknowledges that ‘we’ – us and them together – are equal with different strengths.
“The purpose of our journeys is to engage with the people and communities we visit as equals to gain insights into the realities of their circumstances, form relationships, learn from each other and critique our own culture from their perspective.
“Once a relationship is formed between the respective communities, then a conversation can begin about how each can be of service to the other.”