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Home arrow Sociology arrow Perspectives on Volunteering: Voices from the South
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Findings

Reciprocity, mutuality, and power are important to solidarity as outlined in the literature. These values are present in the case of the Peru Program across both volunteering frameworks. In addition, the value of community emerged as being important to advancing solidarity across the two volunteering models.

Reciprocity : As mentioned, reciprocity is a value very much present in Peruvian culture through Andean ayni : It is also a pillar of ethical and effective progressive approaches to ISL. Reciprocity posits that all partners realize the benefits of service. As aforementioned, Northern university volunteers spent several weeks working at two different Comedores sites over 2 years of the Peru Program, repairing and rebuilding structures of the small kitchens where subsidized meals were cooked for the respective communities. The objective of the national program of the Comedores Populares is “To improve the conditions of food of people with limited resources who live in marginal urban and rural sectors of the country, offering food attention to vulnerable groups with high nutritional risk by means of dining halls organized by the community” (Alcazar, 2007, p. 192). The program itself is built on reciprocity. Lunches are prepared for the local community members daily by a group of women. The women members of the Comedores have a rotation and are responsible for cooking lunches in teams of five for a week and then have two-week breaks. The model of the Comedores offers an illumination of Andean reciprocity as they are mutual self-help efforts by women community members who volunteer their time to better their communities.

In addition to the inherent reciprocity in the Comedores program, the partnership among Southern and Northern volunteers produced reciprocity. Students were able to practice their Spanish, learn more about Peru, and understand the dimensions of local development. Women community volunteers were able to receive materials from the project and several weeks of physical labor from the university volunteers. Beyond these quite tangible and visible measures of reciprocity evidenced in the Peru Program, there were more subtle indicators across the two frameworks.

Reciprocity presented itself outside of the construction projects at the Comedores and in nonverbal ways. In the first year of the program, community leaders sang traditional songs to Northern university volunteers and other community members who were present. This was a welcome to their community and a gift to the newly arrived volunteers. In addition, during project days, at the start of the afternoon, the community volunteers would serve the Northern university volunteers lunch. Northern university volunteers would attempt to pay for the lunch, knowing that any profit made from the lunches goes back into the association for vegetables and meat which were items not provided by government. However, the women community volunteers would not accept the payment, rather this was ayni.

Reciprocity was also demonstrated when the final projects were finished. In particular, in 2014, when the Comedor was rebuilt, the community volunteers spearheaded a celebration. During this period, ayni was displayed as there was what is called a challar. Challar in Andean culture is a process in which the community feeds and gives drink to Mother Earth, which shows the linkage between humans and nature. At the challar ceremony, the Deputy Mayor of Cusco spoke words related to Andean ayni. She addressed the Northern university volunteers: “To bring your help, your energy, your work; you all have learned in Peru that the Incas brought us and taught us a great philosophy called ayni; it means today for you, tomorrow for me. Sometimes the state does not realize that nutrition [for these communities] is very important. With your help, we can make this world better.”

Another way in which the women community volunteers at the Comedor demonstrated reciprocity was by encouraging the Peru Program to extend its relations and partnership to other Comedores as the program develops. One of the community leaders, referred to as Dona Maria, expressed gratitude for the experience of working with the university volunteers and for the materials and hours spent building the Comedor. There were still door frames and windows needed, and the women community volunteers indicated that they would seek further help from the Municipality, if possible, for those materials. However, even as the Comedor still needed final touches, Dona Maria focused attention to other communities. Dona Maria said to the group of Northern university volunteers, “Don’t forget about the other communities who need help too.”

Northern university volunteers reflected on this, as a student explained: “[Dona Maria] thanked us for the work we had done there, but said that work there was done for the time being. She then encouraged us to not to forget about other communities in need.” Another student explains the same instance when she saw the generosity of Dona Maria: “... the fact that this Comedor could certainly benefit from more ... help, and despite how easy it would have been for her to encourage us to continue supporting their cause, Dona Maria selflessly encouraged us to “spread the wealth” and work to touch as many other communities as we could.” Indeed, the Municipality Program Coordinator called Dona Maria a “true champion” for her community and the marginalized communities in the outskirts of Cusco.

Mutuality: Mutuality posits that there is a common vision among the stakeholders, in this case, the women community and university volunteers, the South and the North. Mutuality at times was challenged as Los Comedores did not have experience working on social or community projects with people outside of Peru, and a majority of the students had not volunteered in an international context. No students had previously been to Peru. Thus, expectations across the groups at times varied. Northern university volunteers were so committed to service from the start, they were, at times, conflicted about the uneven amount of work done at the Comedores. As one student reflected in 2013, “Our service expeditions varied from both extremes, at one point we felt extremely useless and like we were doing nothing. This happened when we were waiting and eating at the Municipality’s El Comedor.”; however, the student continued with reflection, “Yet service learning isn’t about going into a location and deciding what we should do. Service learning is about showing support, acting as curious helpers who, in another country, are learning about culture and customs.”

Across the stakeholders, there has developed a shared vision for the future of the Peru Program. For example according to our partners at the Municipality in Cusco, the communities served at the two Comedores benefited from the collaboration with the Northern university volunteers. However, Municipal leaders expressed a desire to achieve more outcomes in the future through better coordination and more thorough identification of the needs of the community. In addition, they welcome an extension of the visit from the Northern university volunteers and want to build on more resources to fully complete the projects.

Of course, administrators from the university understood that aligning expectations of the women community volunteers and the expectations of the university volunteers was important but also difficult. One administrator explains that “We have not had enough time in the development of this program yet to understand how we can best couple our student learning goals with service partner goals for the most mutually beneficial relationship possible.” Despite the overall program’s purposiveness to seek both reciprocity and mutuality across the community and university volunteers, participants associated with the University were cognizant that benefit might tilt toward the university students which could impede solidarity. An administrator who helped design and plan the program explained on a survey after the program’s first year: “While I believe that the [Comedores] did receive a true benefit, I feel that the students benefited most in the initial year of the program.”

Northern university volunteers were aware of the limitations of the impact that their volunteering had on the Comedor. One student explained in the survey that “As a student it was easier to see and understand the affect our service projects had on us individually. It is harder for me to know what the affect was on the [service] site.” Other students while understanding that they would only participate in a single year, wanted to see the program build “lasting relationships” to enhance reciprocity and mutuality and build solidarity.

Power: Instances related to power surfaced during the program. Power differentials were considered by community volunteers at the Comedor and reflected on by several Northern university volunteers. The concepts of “us/them” manifested and were discussed. However, findings show that this was tempered in time and by the act of volunteering side by side.

Community members among and beyond the women of the Comedor quickly noticed the Northern university volunteers. A student explained, “Dona Maria mentioned [that] many of the locals had never seen [foreigners] as anything more than tourists. I hope that by us coming, we were able to change their image of Americans, and see that in the end we are much more similar than it seems on the surface.” As Dona Maria explained, she had “never seen an international group [do manual] work.” She explained that she had understood foreigners as tourists or as groups giving money to social causes and then leaving, whereas she described the project with the Northern university volunteers as “collaboration.” She further explained that this impression spilled into the community, especially among the kids. She said that they “have never seen [foreigners] working like this. This is big news that [they] are here.” Community members generally had an image of Northern visitors in the city center haggling for alpaca sweaters or knitted hats. They also witness public resources focused on keeping the city center clean, for example, by implementing street-cleansing policies which cater to tourists and seek to make the city more beautiful for tourists (Sinero & Hill, 2011). These were community members’ reference points about Northern visitors. Community members at the Comedores began to see the Northern university volunteers as more than tourists. Thus, preconceived understandings of “the other” were realigned by working on the projects. Likewise, Northern university volunteers began to understand the marginalized communities beyond what the tourism industry “constructs ... as dependent and backward” (Sinero & Hill, 2011, p. 119).

Another power differential that surfaced was about global mobility. During reflection and discussion, Northern student volunteers posed the question: “To reach true solidarity wouldn’t there have to be an even exchange, in the sense that Southern partners would need to come to serve our communities?” A challenge to global solidarity is explained by Olesen (2004): “The world today. is not a level playing field where global citizens are free to enter and exchange ideas and solidarities” (p. 264) and are less so able to freely exchange physical locations. Indeed, Dona Maria has far more limitations to coming to upstate New York to volunteer than the Northern university volunteers do going to Peru. This power differential is something that garnered serious debate about achieving solidarity.

A further manifestation of power was the attention given to the project. This was something the Northern university volunteers discussed at length in reflective essays. In the final day of the project, the community and student volunteers had a celebration. As mentioned earlier, the Deputy Mayor, who was our main contact to the Municipality, was present. But it was inferred by all volunteers that perhaps the Deputy Mayor would have not been there had Northern university volunteers not been present. One of the students explained that according to the Program Coordinator: “The Comedores receive so little aid from government,” and the student continued expressing her unease about it: “[I think] it takes a group of Americans showing up and doing something to attract attention from higher-power officials” in Cusco.

Community: In addition to reciprocity, mutuality, and power, we find that the value of community is important to advancing global solidarity. In the Andean worldview, community “is conceived of as a unit of life made up of all forms of existence, not just a social structure made up of humans only” (Villalba, 2013, p. 1430). Community was displayed in many ways during the time the Southern community volunteers and Northern university volunteers were together. Community was a space in that the Comedor was of all the community’s, and people passed through not only for lunch but also to simply engage in daily social interactions and conversation.

Community is not only space but also a practice and attitude. At times the community’s practices conflicted with the Northern university volunteers’ ideas of individual responsibility. Northern university volunteers were challenged with the independence of children moving about the community without adult supervision, but they soon learned that it was very much a community effort to care for children. Witnessing children alone initially reinforced what they were seeing in the city center, where children are working or they are shown in images, such as postcards, as alone and dirty. These interpretations only reinforce the constructions that indigenous or marginalized communities do not take care of their children. Indeed, concerns around “dirt and hygiene have been central to racial elites and their ‘civilizing’ projects in Cusco” for some time (Sinero & Hill, 2011, p. 119).

Students began to understand the cultural meaning of community within a new context. One remarked “[t]hat sense of hard work and collectivism is refreshing because I feel as though I rarely see that at home. I also found the experience rewarding because not only were we helping them, but they were teaching us. That sort of relationship creates more of a partnership and is what I think service learning and volunteering is all about.” An additional student volunteer explained that the Comedor “was made for the community, by the community.” And another commented that: “[t]hroughout the project, what really stood out was the community unity and togetherness, and willingness to help.”

And as mentioned earlier, while committed to her own community, Dona Maria had a macro sense of community as she said, “Don’t forget about other communities.” The Northern university volunteers observed what they called “incredible, strong women” who “inspired and empowered” not only the other women in the community but also the student volunteers themselves. For example, one student volunteer explained: “My experience at the Comedor taught me a lot. I was able to see many women leaders who were truly making an impact on their community.” Likewise, another wrote in a reflective essay, “Doing all [Dona Maria] does for the community voluntarily, it is amazing to see how much passion she has and how greatly she wants to make a positive change.” Dona Maria was, in fact, the driving force behind her community’s Comedor in partnership with the Municipality. As she explained: “We dreamed for 3 years, asking [the Municipality] ‘When are we going to get a Comedor?’ We had all the documents in, and it did not come. We were dreaming. Then [the Program Coordinator] came and said ‘Maria I have news for you. You now have Comedor.’ Oh, we were so happy.” She explained that they had the small adobe building which was in bad shape, but they were still able to cook for the community. Soon after the start of the Comedor, Dona Maria and other women volunteers heard about what the Peru Program had done in 2013 at a Comedor up the road and asked the Program Coordinator to consider her community for collaboration.

This collaboration was celebrated and solidified at the challar previously mentioned. The values of reciprocity, mutuality, and community, in particular, came together as Dona Maria asked the Program Coordinator, the Deputy Mayor, and the two faculty members from the Northern university volunteers to jointly do the chal- lar. That is, the four women broke a champagne bottle to celebrate the new Comedor and provide Mother Earth with drink. Accompanied by balloons, streamers, and a crowd, the four women all grabbed a hammer to break the hanging champagne bottle. After several attempts and lots of laughter, the bottle was broken and the celebration began, providing yet another opportunity to reinforce the nascent solidarity developing among the two volunteer groups.

 
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