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So my attempt to take blogging back up has clearly not been very successful, as more than a month has passed since the last post in which I decided to hop back into this. Acknowledging the gap, I’ll give you another update on what that month has entailed.

Worth mentioning is that I’m writing this update on a plane from St. Louis to Little Rock (with a quick stop over in Chicago), coming back from spending the last five days with Hannah. Finding ourselves living in neighboring states again, it is a nice feeling knowing that we are “next door” to each other, even though that distance is quite more than our last geographical side-by-side locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Additionally, Mandy is also to my south, in New Orleans. I was afforded the opportunity to see Mandy about a month ago as she spent about 20 hours in Little Rock with her 6th grade students on a Civil Rights tour. I point out these two visits with Hannah and Mandy because the amount of comfort, energy, and relief that finding ways to see my oldest best friends in the context of our current lives is of insurmountable value. When I think back to high school and before, I could never have imagined that I would be living in Little Rock (or anywhere beyond the boundaries of Massachusetts and New England), let alone about to graduate with two masters degrees and working in a field that I try emulate to live both personally and professionally. The past weekend I felt so very lucky to see Hannah in her element, as she showed me around her lab space at Washington University where she has just completed her first year working toward a Ph.D in clinical psychology. Last month I got to watch Mandy lead a group of thirty plus twelve- to fourteen-year-olds through Little Rock, culminating in a trip to the ice skating rink. Watching her interact with her students and guide them through what was a first time experience on the ice for the majority of the class is a memory that I am so happy I was able to share with her. When I think back to elementary school, middle school, and high school in small town Athol with my two best friends, I would have never imagined the three of us would be where we are, have achieved what we have, and would be working tirelessly to continue moving forward and upward. The distance we have travelled (literally and figuratively) has been great, and even though we only manage to see each other once or twice a year, those precious hours, days, or weeks are a key factor in supplying the energy, motivation, and faith to remember where I came from and to charge forward in getting to where I’m going. Although our lives are so different, we share something so similar, which is what I believe has bonded us and will keep us close throughout our lives.   

So, where am I going?

Last month I wrote about the completion of my courses for my master degrees in public health and public service, about approaching end of my contract with Catholic Charities Immigration Services, and the work I have done in growing the field service program and mentoring students at the Clinton School. This time I will write about a grassroots movement I have been involved in, and… a new job I have recently accepted.

Before I start this, I will say that I intend this blog to be more than the telling of what I am doing week to week. I plan to share articles of relevance to my interests, snippets of the culture that defines my world, and posts that will hopefully have relevance to others and stimulate questions, thought, and conversations (online or offline). I do feel that I need to lay the framework of my own activities before I get to those posts to give you the context of why I share what I will. 

If you’ve asked me what I’ve been up to anytime February and now, it’s likely that I mentioned something about a technology research park. I can almost without a doubt say the best choice I made in the past year (although I had no idea at the time) was when I registered for a racial and ethnic health disparities course last November. An elective course with a service learning requirement, my class of seven other students and two professors became engaged in an effort to advocate for responsible economic development in Little Rock. Without going into too much detail, several private and public agencies have come together to build a university technology research park. Basically, a park like this acts as an extension of universities/hospitals to commercialize research and make it available and useful to wider audiences than the labs in which it was developed. Its attractiveness comes through its promises of job creation, economic growth, slowing brain drain in Arkansas, revitalization, technological competition, and so on.

You are right if you are thinking that this doesn’t sound like it fits in with my normal interests. I have taken a particular interest in this because of the way the park is being planned. Negotiations and contracts for the development began years ago, but the tangible activities went “public” in about November 2011. A seven-person board was appointed to guide the development, its members being from science, technology, business, and real estate fields. One of the first public announcements the board made was its intentions to place the park in one of three areas they were considering. Each site is full of residential homes, neighborhoods, and families. It was announced in a business as usual fashion that the building of the technology park would require the demolition of a selected neighborhood. The least populated site has 123 houses, the largest has 262 houses. That amount to the potential for a thousand plus people being displaced and losing their homes in the name of “progress.”

I can write and write about this, and my roommates and friends in Little Rock can certainly vouch that there is not a day that goes by in which I do not take any opportunity to talk at length about it. As residents in these three potential areas began to learn the plans for their neighborhoods, opposition began to grow. A broad-based grassroots coalition emerged, as the neighborhoods began to organize to stand up for their worlds that have been lived in and created through the sacred place of one’s home. I have been involved in many different activities surrounding this, and my last month has been filled with going to city hall meetings, tech park board meetings, and meetings with other stakeholders to talk about the research my professors, classmates and I had undertaken through tradition literature reviews and analysis of Census and other data, but also through interviews we spent a semester conducting to understand what kind of impact physical neighborhood displacement would have on people. We studied things from federal urban renewal programs, social and mental health, patterns of racial discrimination in housing policies and urban planning, community organizing and so many other topics. I’ve been welcomed into the community coalition and feel so privileged to work alongside with committed activists who tirelessly work toward achieving a common goal of having the tech park built in a non-residential area. The outlets for creating change have come from grassroots door-knocking and block parties, to advocating for city ordinances, to coordinating for a public health expert to come to Little Rock and speak about the deleterious impact of forced displacement. I am in awe every day at the process of change and fight for justice. What began as a top-down process has been threatened by this organized community force. I have never seen “politics as usual” or the “powers that be” so thwarted by any opposing force as what I have witnessed and participated in over the last several months. Our coalition still has a lot of work to do, but we have several signs of hope that this technology park will not displace entire neighborhoods when all is said and done.

This project has made me feel connected to Little Rock in ways I haven’t before. It has also been a powerful lesson in civic engagement and community building. I’ve asked myself and others a lot of questions lately: what is representation? What is participation? What is participatory democracy? Is there justification for the “greater good” to advance if that requires a smaller portion of the community to suffer (in this situation those choices are not binary or dichotomous choices)? What do I expect of my city leaders? What do I do when my place of employment and/or school do things I believe are wrong (unfortunately that’s not a new one I’ve had to deal on the last several years)? How can I do something to act on any of these questions?? And the list goes on.          

This project will continue to go on for months (years), so I am happy that I am sticking around to be a part of it. This being much longer than I expected, I am going to leave you now until next time. As hinted throughout, I have a new job to write about. The preview is: it’s perfect.             

Hey there! Surprise to whoever subscribed to this blog last summer, here’s another post coming to your inbox. Often times over the past year when I’ve felt nostalgic for Cambodia or for travel in general, I would pop open this blog and reminisce about the incredible summer I spent in the Kingdom. It’s hard to believe that that trip started over a year ago. It’s made me think about just everything that happened in the past 10 months since I’ve been back, because a whole lot has been going on. Mostly for the good, and some self-reflecting on where I’ve been and where I’m heading has prompted me to consider starting this blog up again.

I have to admit to too many facebook messages unanswered, emails that get pushed far down my inbox and overlooked, and voicemails not returned this past school year. For everyone who has asked me what the heck I’ve been doing, I am going to attempt to recount my major undertakings here…

I wrote on my last day in Cambodia of the jobs I was returning home to. I have been at Catholic Charities Immigration Services for over a year now. My job was always a temporary one, and I actually only have 11 work days left there. I have been acting as the Case Manager for the Supporting Survivors program. Catholic Immigration is a legal assistance organization, and this department works with immigrants, mainly women, who are survivors of human trafficking, sexual and/or domestic violence, or violent crime. My colleagues are immigration specialists who deal with the legal remedies available to victims, and I focused on meeting non-legal needs. So if a client needed to find a health provider, an after school program for her children, help with a bill, etc., I would connect her with an appropriate resource. It was a very different experience than my previous work in immigration issues, and I definitely learned a lot about working in this field. Two of the most fulfilling projects I got to work on were exposing, challenging, and changing a state health care policy that we found in violation with the federal law (this required a LOT of emails, consults with advocacy groups, and lots and lots of research) and working to help reunite a client with her four children who were living in Guatemala after being separated for many years (which required first brushing up on my Spanish, making contacts with faith and advocacy groups in Guatemala City, and helping the children with health and education needs when they finally arrived in Little Rock some 8 months after starting the process). The most enjoyable part of the job, though, has been being part of an anti-human trafficking work group. This was an interdisciplinary group of service providers, legal folks, health providers, community members and faith leaders. Collectively, the group came up with strategies for community education and outreach efforts, material for state legislation, and more. It was an incredible experience to see such a diverse group come together and take action to move a sorely understood topic forward. The job wraps up at the end of the month, and although I’ve learned a tremendous amount, I’ll be ready to move on with just the right about of satisfaction and closure.

In my other 20 hours of work week time, I spent working at the Clinton School in the Field Service Department. The Clinton School prides itself on the field service component of the degree, and I chose to pursue my graduate assistantship there for that reason of feeling purposeful and that I was contributing to soemthing that everyone values. Over the school year I got to work closely with first year students as they completed their public service group projects, I contributed to class materials and class instruction, and did some research on various topics to strengthen our school policies and procedures. The job turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated, but I welcomed it and it really helped me feel connected to the school and gave me a good reason to get to know the new students. I also got to learn about a lot of local issues as I watched 40 students tackle big social issues through their work, so that was great exposure in itself.         

I’m inching closer and closer to finally being “Ashley Bachelder, M.P.H., M.P.S.” I am 9 credits away from having two masters degrees in hand. It will take me through December to finish them, as they are all credits for fieldwork. I finished my load of courses about three weeks ago (for this set of degrees as least), and it was so bittersweet. I was incredibly lucky to trip into the College of Public Health, and I am so fortunate to have found a field that I not only love learning about but strive to truly live everyday. Arkansas has been an ideal state to foray into this new field, and I have learned from some amazing practitioners and researchers. I’m thankful to have found two particular professors that I consider mentors, and they have just been excellent to me. No matter what I thought about the stress I endured over the semesters, the sleep deprived weeks, and the 12 WEEKENDS that I spent in class, I really can’t complain.

Those are the big picture things I’ve been engaged in, I’ll write more soon about the special projects I’m working on which are the REAL endeavours I’m most excited and passionate about.

Now that I’m just hours away from parting ways with Cambodia, I am going to make an attempt to record some of the things that have been going through my mind this past week.

First, I’ll say thank you to everyone who followed along with me, reading whatever I posted from week to week. Since I started this blog in May I’ve had over 1,000 views, so I hope that something here entertained you at some point or another. I haven’t been very good at keeping in touch with many people in my time over here, so I tried to record most of the high points here, for whoever it is that reads this. However, there are so many things that this blog did not capture which have been most quintessential to my trip.

I never wrote of the impromptu English lessons I would fall into teaching at work, or the nights spent similarly helping with English homework with the staff at my guesthouse. I never wrote of the hours I would just spend laying on my rooftop and the reasons why I love the Cambodian sky. Or how I absolutely hated the monsoons when I first arrived, but now I welcome the afternoon downpours and the peace that the pattering of the rain brings. Or of most enjoyable breakfasts, most of which have been spent munching over my food in the company of 12-year old Louie from Scotland, who is here for his second summer volunteering at a community center with his younger sister and mother. My best days have often been those spent on my bicycle, when it’s up to me and the power of my own legs to see, accomplish, and do what I want.  More so, I left out for the most part the reasons I fell in love with Khmer people here; from the way the look when they are surprised, the communal meals and snacks I’ve shared with my colleagues, how most will help you pronounce whatever word you want to learn 10 times before you get it right without making you feel silly, the way that anyone (cab driver, stranger on the bus, etc.) will share food with you if they have some and you don’t, the way Khmers will say thank you when you tell them you are a volunteer and then tell you about the hope they have for the future, and for the receiving going away cards that say thank you for your help, but thank you more for being my friend.

On the academic side of things (that is why I’m here, right?), this IPSP has really helped me define what public service means to me, which despite all the conversations we at UACS have had before on this, is still a bit fuzzy from time to time. I have seen public health put into practice here between various NGOs, policies and behaviors, and understand the comprehensiveness of the sector much more than I predict my intro to public health class will teach me this fall. Both these factors have aided in altering and enhancing my understanding and perception of development, and I welcome further conversation about these topics offline.

Finally, after my first few trips working abroad, people would ask me after about the personal impact. Did it change me? Was it “life changing” (whatever that means)? I definitely know the answer here for my time in Cambodia: no, this trip was not life changing.

It was affirming. I already know the sort of work I want to find myself in, and this trip just confirmed that. I sometimes feel like I am chasing some obscure or unknown ending in the endeavours I’ve chosen the past few years. It’s especially common when I go home once or twice a year, and see the opportunities and relationships I’ve forfeited, the friendships that have faded, and the distance between my family and I. Although I’m always generally happy in the here and now, I can’t say I haven’t always questioned the path I’m on and the choices that have led me here. Plus, can you just imagine how hard it was to first explain to family and friends that yes, I was moving to Kentucky to work, and then yes, I am actually moving to Arkansas next :-p

But anyway, this summer has been perfect in so many ways. It’s acted as one of the reminders that I am where I am because I want to be here and have worked for it. I’m leaving Cambodian feeling accomplished in what I came here to do, and as long as I can keep on helping wherever I am, it’s good enough. So what does it mean for now? It means that I’m actually a bit more ready to come home than I thought I would be about a week ago.

I have said that if I didn’t have my public health degree and two new job to return home to, I would likely look to remain and do my capstone here. It’s still true, and I probably would. But, I know that come Wednesday evening I will be back in Little Rock. I don’t remember the last time I was as excited as I am now for classes to start. I’m taking four courses at UAMS this semester, and I can’t wait to dive in. I’m excited to resume my new role as a case manager at Catholic Charities Immigration, where I will be working with the Supporting Survivors Program. I took the last year off from working in immigrant and refugee services, and that year was long enough. Finally, I’ll also be working for the Clinton School with first year students in their fieldwork placements, and I’m ready to see my refined definition of public service put to practice in 10 different setting.

I have had a perfect summer in Cambodia, met and learned from people around the world, completed a meaningful project for my partner organization, and fell in love with a country, culture, and people. There is so much good happening here, and I was continually impressed day after day by the people I met and events, programs, and social change that was happening. I honestly do feel that I will be back one day, and when the opportunity comes I will be better prepared than I was this summer. I’ll sharpen my skills through my work at home, where I will be operating on my own terms and in much more control over the ways plans turn out. I’ll expand my knowledge and praxis as a public health servant as I continue academically in my degree programs. And when the time is right, I’ll return.

Thanks again for reading. I would say that maybe I will keep this blogging thing up, but I know I won’t. Plus, my Arkansas life is not nearly as excited as my Cambodia life has been. Now to get a few hours of sleep and prepare myself for two days on an airplane.

Last day in the office wearing my new scarf from my colleagues

Saying goodbye to our regular visiting kids from the village

My time in Cambodia is quickly coming to a close, and I have been scurrying around trying to get in everything I want to do before leaving the Kingdom. Some of the highlights from the last couple weeks include…

Battambang: I travelled to Battambang a couple weekends ago, and boy is it different from Siem Reap. It is the second largest city in Cambodia (after Phnom Penh), but very few tourists and foreigners. A friend connected me with a friend of hers, so I had a place to stay and some folks to show me around which was great. The highlights of the weekend included riding the bamboo train and going to an all out birthday party.

The bamboo train is one of the oldest ways of transporting goods in Cambodia. Now, it’s used as a tourist attraction and will be completely dismantled within the next year, as a railway is being built between Bangkok to Phnom Penh. The major plus of the bamboo train is that there does not need to be two tracks for opposing directions. When an oncoming cart arrives, you simply stop, and pick up your cart and let the other pass. The cart with the least amount of weight is the one that has to move.

Oncoming carts - least amount of people or weight has to move out of the way

The train goes about 25 km, but it seemed much faster

Battambang, Cambodia

Later that night I cleaned up and joined Megan and her friends and colleagues for a birthday celebration. She’s working for the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, and it was the Director’s big birthday bash. It was quite an elaborate party, with women wearing dresses reminiscent of high school proms! Many even changed half way through the night! It was a fun night of dancing, meeting new people, and even keeping the night going late at the local disco club after the party ended.

Battambang birthday party

Beautiful!

Under dressed for the evening?

The following weekend, all the girls I met came to Siem Reap for the weekend. Although I didn’t have a fancy party to bring them to, we continued to have a good weekend. On Saturday morning I ventured out on a nice mountain bike I rented to Wat Knang Phnom Kron. The wat is about an hour outside Siem Reap (on bicycle), on top of the closest thing that resembles a mountain in the area (although it was paved pathway the whole way up), and overlooks Tonle Sap lake and the floating village of Chong Kneas. It was a very enjoyable ride through several villages, and a nice view from the top. Tonle Sap is just enormous, and looks as though it’s an ocean.

Love this

Look closely and you'll notice on the horizon Tonle Sap lake

Heading down to the bottom

Buddhas

Goodbyes have started, and I do not like them. I will spend a few more hours in the office next week, but my official last day was this Friday, and my goodbye dinner was this week as well.

Women's Resource Center staff, Rathana (TL), Pisey and son Sokdean (TR), Sokleang (BL), me and Sothy (BR)

Goodbyes also have to happen with the great group of folks I’ve been living with this summer. Construction of a new restaurant and general common area outside our hostel was completed this week, so we had a party!

Chonley and Simbath

Chonley and I

My Jasmine Family

Australia, Japan, Italy, Cambodia, USA, France and Korea!

I am in Phnom Penh now, and will explore the Grand Palace and the National Museum in the morning. In the afternoon I will visit the S21 Museum and go to the Killing Fields, where I’ve been told I’ll see images that will stay with me forever. I’ll be back to Siem Reap on Sunday, wrap up things at work and around the town on Monday and head out Tuesday. Look for one more post on my final thoughts between now and then!

 

 

 

I went out to the Royal Gardens tonight to watch the sunset. Right around the same time, hundreds and hundreds of bats fly about until it is completely dark. It was all so peaceful, beautiful, and reflective. I can’t believe I am leaving Cambodia in less than two weeks – I am not ready!

Sunset at the Royal Gardens

Royal Gardens

 

Royal Gardens

 

Hundreds of bats come out each night at sunset

 

 

Transportation in Cambodia can be described in many ways: adventurous, exciting, a mystery, dangerous, something to dread and/or hate, a way to make new friends, or a big leap of faith. Cambodia is a small country, but the infrastructure and roads (or lack of both) make it exceedingly difficult to travel. In town travel is easy, but leaving town presents many options. I’ve heard so many horror stories, and finally have some of my own to add.

My first transit snafu was a minor one. Last week I was on a boat with my friend Lisa on Tonle Sap lake (one of the options for transit between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and small stops along the way. Also the largest lake in Asia). We were the only two people on the boat of about 12 feet long. The motor over heated due to some minor flooding. We were only stranded for about an hour before they got it working again. Not bad.

This past weekend I travelled to the city Battambang. Choices are boat, bus, or taxi. I had to work on Friday, so arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 4pm. Well, at 4am Friday morning I awoke to someone banging on my door and window. Terrified and not knowing what was happening, I curled up in my bed hoping it would stop! Eventually I figured out the mistake. Communication breakdown.

So 4pm rolls around, and my driver shows back up. I had paid for a private taxi, which is simply a man that drives me to my location in his car. After about 10 minutes on the road, we stopped and I was left in the car for about 30 minutes alone without a clue as to what the driver was doing. He comes back with another person. A private taxi no more, and I know that I’ve been ripped off and this other passenger is getting a free ride thanks to my payment. We stop again after about 25 minutes in, this time for the driver to fill up on food. He comes back with a bag of fried chicken, pepper flavored crackers, rambutans, and Angkor beer. Then hands me a coke saying “sorry sorry sorry!” On we go. Another stop, this time to pick up another man, and round two of food (including beer number 2 for my driver). In the end I arrive in Battambang nearly 2 hours late because of the stops, irritated that I got scammed, but very happy to get out of the car smelling like a combination of meat, beer and garbage in 100 degree heat.

The great visibility through the back window as I tried to spy what my driver was doing during one of the stops.

However in retrospect, that taxi trip was like heaven compared to my Sunday travel back. I purchased a bus ticket on Saturday night for an 11am Sunday bus. After enjoying a delicious breakfast of American pancakes with Megan and new friends, I head to the bus station early to verify my seat. The bus pulls up right on time, but we’re told it’s broken. The Cambodians who were waiting for the bus scuffled off to whatever their solution was, and myself and the other two barangs stood awaiting a new solution. We were told to get in a taxi, free of additional cost. No extra cost shocked me, and I should have known it was too good to be true.

The three of us are in the back of the taxi. We drive about 15 minutes then turn off the main road and head into a village. We drive a bit more, unknowing to us where we are headed, and pull into what appeared to be some form of a mechanic shop. An adult woman gets in the front seat, holding three children in her lap. The driver fills up the trunk with some items, then opens my door to tell me to move over, that another woman and her two children are getting in the back too. This taxi was your average Toyota Camry Sedan, and was DEFINITELY not going to fit a total of 11 people. We said no – no way, it’s not safe, and that we paid for safe conditions on a bus and will not accept this. We argued for a while, using a sad mix of limited English and my terrible Khmer. The woman in the front got out, and the other woman got in, and the first tried to get in the back to see if that would change my mind. Still, no. We drove back to the bus station where the manager told me we had to do it, but we relentlessly argued until we won. We still had one of the women and her children in the front, so had to drive back to the village to drop her back off and unload the items in the back.

This is where it gets interesting. At some point during the switch, one of the women lost some money. When this was realized, all hell broke loose. There was yelling, hitting the air, slapping money on the hood of the car and more screaming. I have never seen a Khmer person use physical force on another person, but was a bit worried for our safety and theirs. The three of us sat in the back seat, watching the scene unfold as basically the whole village came and surrounded the car. The women were eventually separated and the village chief came. At this point we had to get out of the car for fear of overheating ourselves. Not knowing all the details and knowing the driver was already frustrated with us over our stance on passenger capacity, we sat near the side of the car trying not to interfere. A few children befriended me, and we played a few rounds of hopscotch and I used my wonderful Khmer number skills to count up to 15 with them during each hop.

Eventually, we got back into the car and on the road. Finally! But no, we were just heading to the police station. Another hour of sitting there, not much of a clue as to what was happening. Eventually, another taxi came to pick us up which then made for an uneventful trip home. I don’t know the resolution of the story, but I hope no one really stole the money, and that the women were able to find it. I am, however, very grateful that at no point the accusation turned to the barangs in the back seat as potential theifs. I (thankfully) have not had to have any encounters with police here, but have been told by many people that if there is ever a dispute between a foreigner and a local, the foreigner automatically loses.

So is my story of the 3 hour trip turned 8. Next weekend I will travel to the capital city Phnom Penh via an overnight bus, which I am sure will come with more stories; just hopefully not a trip to the police this time.

Ever since Angkor Wat became one of the world’s largest growing tourist hot spots, the concept of “voluntourism” has skyrocketed in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap where I live and work. One might think the more volunteers the better, but that’s not always the case, and especially not here. Corruption in Cambodia exists in far more than one way, and one of the big problems is groups claiming to be an NGO in order to attract tourists, volunteers, and their money. Orphanages, and entities that falsely claim the title, are the biggest problem specifically. Siem Reap Province has hundreds – literally, hundreds – of “orphanages,” but most of the children are not orphans. Many families who cannot support their children leave them to be cared for by one of these groups, but worse, I have been told it is just as common for the fraudulent NGOs to coerce poor families into selling or renting their children to them. This article is from November, but still brings up many good points, both about the orphanage scams and other points about voluntourism that are relevant far beyond Cambodia’s borders.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna?INTCMP=SRCH

I will share a few of the good lines if you haven’t looked:

“The harsh truth is that ‘voluntourism’ is more about the self-fulfilment of westerners than the needs of developing nations. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a world in which Madonna thinks it is fine to take children from African families.”

“Too many travellers carry a naively romantic idea of doing good alongside their luggage. Unfortunately, they are led by their hearts and not their heads and unknowingly support environments that may be abusive to children.”

“The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer. But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of voluntourism is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help.”

So, what do you think voluntourism should look like? What’s appropriate – and especially in a ‘developing’ country that has so many groups trafficking through on community-service, missionary, or what have you trips. When I meet new Cambodian people and tell them a bit about what I am doing, I am nearly always thanked, and more than once, for coming to Cambodia and volunteering here. I really haven’t any local people who do not genuinely seem to care about the future development of the country; and the question about the balance between local and “imported” skills and help is always a present one.

As the quotes suggest, it is not always easy to figure out what to do with volunteers. There is an organization here called ConCERT  whose tagline is “helping you help.” In their ideal world, all volunteer placements in Siem Reap would go through them (oops). Many people talk about volunteers in Siem Reap as having the “hug a child” syndrome, referring to the fact that many people want to just come and play with kids. I’ll leave you to figure out how this is more hurtful than helpful to Cambodian youth, families, and NGO staff who need to facilitate it all.

A facebook message chain in a group that I am turned into a series of conversations around these issues (I don’t want to harp on the power of social media, but I have learned SO many things about this city, the people that live here, and other opportunities through facebook while here. My experience would not have been the same without it!). The original objective of these conversations has been to talk about options for individuals or groups who want to volunteer for a day or two. When I worked at Americana last year, our simple solution tended to be some kind of physical/manual labor; be it trash pick up, painting, shredding, etc. When this was suggested, however, the answer is more complicated for Cambodia. Manual labor would take away a job of a Cambodian whose responsibility the task original was. It’s not so simple that this person would just do something else, the likelier result would be a dismissal from work – obviously not the outcome we are looking for.

So what does responsible volunteering look like? When people inquire specifically about what I am doing here at WRC, I tend to get either surprised responses or praises. People tend to be surprised that a) I am not teaching English, b) I do not have any client contact at all, and c) I came here to work on a computer all day? Others, who are more atuned to creating sustainable social change, tell me that what I am doing is great. I’ve shared the philosophy of the Clinton School fieldwork program with a few folks recently and the responses are always positive. So, Class 7 through 100+, Cambodia would love to have you 🙂

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