Pride and privilege: how AFS experiences relate to social justice

As an AFS volunteer and returnee I often find it challenging to explain to outsiders what we do. From the simplest explanation about our school programs to a long discussion about our volunteer development strategies, I have always found it difficult to explain impact of our work to those outside the AFS network. The dynamic of each conversation can vary, but I have always had this feeling that even those who have had many intercultural experiences, such as living, studying, or traveling abroad, encountering diversity in their day-to-day interactions, or even going through similar study abroad programs to what AFS offers often are not fully able to understand what it truly means to be an AFSer. But, why is that?

Our biggest strengths constitute our biggest privileges. These include the support that the students and volunteers receive from the organization: orientations, intercultural trainings, workshops and so on, the feeling of belongingness that is transversal to anyone in the AFS network, and the opportunity be a part of a prestigious organization among the international community. These are the strengths that make AFSers unique from many others that have not had these privileges. But, how aware are AFSers of such privileges?

Photo by Stephan Lewis, creative commons

In non-AFS contexts, groups of people cross boarders seeking better opportunities to be able to cover their basic needs. They leave behind their homes with the uncertainty of the possibility of return, without knowing if they will ever see their loved ones again. That is not the reason why AFS students go to a different country. Does the average AFS student take this into consideration when encountering someone who is also a stranger where they are or do they consider them to be in the same conditions as they are in foreign territories? Inside a classroom, who is an AFS student in comparison to another foreign student? Are they treated differently? Is it more acceptable for an AFS student to make a "cultural mistake"? If so, why is that?

Most of our students come from a specific socio-economic background and are placed with a host family with similar characteristics to that of their biological family back home. How does that affect our pursuit for diversity within our organization? Do we reflecting on the concept of diversity beyond national cultures? When we talk about intercultural communication and we reduce the cultural spectrum to people with different nationalities we are leaving behind so many other aspects of one's identity that could contribute to enrich our dialogue and to take our mission forward. Within a nation-state, different groups and communities co-exist, often sharing some identities or characteristics with groups from different countries and cultures. Groups with political and/or economic power will tend to determine how a national culture is portrayed, but those who are less privileged, although they often do not have much of a voice and are not well-represented, are an important part of each nation’s culture with which we want our students to engage.

When we talk about culture, we shouldn’t ignore the concepts of power and privilege, because they tend to be invisible to those who have them and because recognizing the ways in which we are privileged helps us understand how the social order constrains people and offers us resources to fight against those limitations. When exploring these two concepts, I would like to mention two relevant activities. The first one is an article written by Professor Peggy McIntosh that explores the daily effects of privilege. "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" is a list of privileges that are attached to a certain personal condition, in her case, her skin-color. Some examples of privilege the identified are: to be able to assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race or your gender and to turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of your race widely represented. The second one is a training activity adapted from McIntosh’s article called "Privilege Walk" which aims to recognize how power and privilege are present in someone's life and how their life can be affected by them. It consists of a list of statements that represents a privilege based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation. Those who enjoy such received privilege take a step forward and those who don't have to take a step back. There are numerous activities and exercises designed to reflect upon and develop sensitivity toward power and privilege. A list of some of these exercises can be found here.

If we want to continue to educate global citizens that contribute to build a more just and peaceful world we have to also look at intercultural learning and diversity from the perspective of social justice. For that reason, I would like to invite all of us to try and unpack our invisible backpacks. Think about your experience with AFS as an AFS participant: AFS student, host family, volunteer or staff and deconstruct that backpack that you carry on your shoulders, that knapsack that everyone in AFS helped you pack with support and inclusiveness. What are the privileges you have in comparison with other people who have had a similar or different intercultural experience? I'll start with some of mine.

As an AFS student I was able to:

1. Know that I could return home to see my family after a certain period of time.

2. Find someone that I could talk to whenever I was feeling culturally fatigued.

3. …



Alondra Silva is a Qualified Trainer in Intercultural Learning for the AFS Learning Program. She has been volunteering with AFS Chile and AFS Brazil since she studied in Portugal. She has a passion for intercultural communication and social justice. She was an AFS SIIC scholar in Portland in 2015 and 2016.