How School Building Trips Promote Two-Fold Empowerment

Romario, a buildOn student, visited Malawi as part of buildOn’s Trek for Knowledge program this past summer. He spent his days working alongside rural villagers to build a new school and his evenings living with a host family and immersing himself in Malawi’s culture.

One of the things that stood out to Romario is that his host brother in Malawi does not even have a pair of shoes. This helped Romario appreciate what he has in his life and feel inspired to give back and “make this world a better place.”

The term “voluntourism” has become synonymous with travel that involves working for a charitable cause. Reports suggest that volunteering in this way can sometimes do more harm than good, perpetuating a culture of dependency and the idea that the “foreigner knows best.” But where this sort of analysis exists, authors often suggests that volunteers are wealthy, privileged do-gooders who volunteer simply as a way to feel good about themselves.

This is not the case with Trek participants, especially students in buildOn’s program like those on the Malawi trip who, as Richart says in his video, “are from some of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the Bronx.”

buildOn’s model, as Trek manager Chad Zibelman recently discussed, is unique. Even after construction is done, international communities and trip participants are asked to take further action. For community members, this means using the school structures well to ensure students learn better in order to prepare them for a brighter future. Rather than thinking they have “saved the world” by helping a community in need, Trek participants become aware that sustainable community transformation can only happen with buy-in from the community itself. They reflect on global opportunity structures and cultural differences, while considering how to apply lessons learned back at home.

Participants who saw global needs firsthand share what they have experienced and can grow buildOn’s movement, hopefully leading to the construction of more schools and the empowerment of young people around the United States.

Thousands of American students underperform on tests, millions of students drop out of school each year and nearly one-third of students in urban areas are living in poverty. Thus, the odds are stacked against a significant portion of young people in the United States. But buildOn students break that mold. And the chance to experience what life is like in other places is enormously impactful for these youth who might never have had the chance to leave their home country.

So we see this as a win-win, to say the least. Trek participants are motivated to give back and take action against inequalities in their own communities and elsewhere. At the same time, rural villagers access improved educational opportunities that they played a role in creating, empowering them to plan for their children’s futures more than ever before.