Spring has sprung, but youth leaders are likely already deep in summer planning. Summer vacation gives us the opportunity for extended or larger-scope projects that may even have a travel component. Opportunities are plentiful to build relationships and create lifelong memories during sun-soaked adventures. How can we engage in acts of service or outreach showing up as neighbors and friends in the united body of Christ, rather than saviors who still see people in differing circumstances as "other"? We can begin by adopting a partnership model, also referred to as an accompaniment model, in all our summer service projects. Here are a few tips to begin!
Pre-learning. Before entering into a new space, learn about the culture of the people you will be interacting with. Practice key phrases such as respectful greetings and expressions of gratitude, try the food and listen to the music, research current issues, and familiarize yourself with an overview of the people and/or area's history. This is needed whether you are a Midwestern youth group heading to the Texas border or an intergenerational, mostly white group going across town to engage with a Latine or Black congregation for a park cleanup. This supports our young people engaging more naturally in conversation with new connections and empowers us to resist the temptation to pressure neighbors to be involuntary educators or tour guides. Those roles should be strictly by pre-arranged consent.
Enter into a new space as learners. Who are trusted groups, organizations, or individuals already doing good work within a community? How might you ally with facilitators who are from, or have a history of partnership with, that culture? When it comes to service and outreach, we don't need to reinvent the wheel, nor should we. Releasing the need to be an expert (or the planner or the idea generator) creates space for us to receive wisdom and guidance from our siblings in traditionally marginalized communities. Have a great idea for a summer lunch program? Make sure no one is already doing it first, or ask for ways to partner with those who are. Even better, ask for guidance from people in the neighborhood in need you have a relationship with. What are ideas and requests from inside the community? Weekly art in the park or simple home repairs may meet a more urgent desire and, if we are receptive, we may observe more creative and efficient ways to do tasks than we could ever have come up with ourselves. We are called to be students, not saviors!
Nurture arenas for continued learning. Too often we enter into summer experiences without a plan to continue the learning and relationships after our trip or project is complete. Design a plan for continued connection into the act of service through a next-step strategy session at the end of your day or the next time you gather. Find a related organization to support during the school year, get contact information for card and letter exchanges, and best, specifically ask your siblings in Christ, "How can we continue to partner with and show love to you going forward?"
By positioning ourselves as students of culture and human experience we can engage more authentically, minimize "trauma tourism" or exploiting and tokenizing our siblings in Christ, and turn good intentions into good relationships.
To learn more about viewing your neighborhood through an asset-based lens rather than a deficit lens, check out these blog posts by Nick Tangen: “Asset-Based Ministry” and “Asset-Mapping in Your Neighborhood.”