Embracing Discomfort alongside Good Intentions

Written by Willy Oppenheim & Alex Knott
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A recent study by The Omprakash Foundation on critical service-learning, explored the experiences of three students engaged in international volunteer programs and found that feelings of disappointment, alienation, frustration, and confusion are to be expected and even celebrated when they emerge through students’ engagements with difference.

The programs the students were involved in sought to cultivate critical consciousness. These programs, like Omprakash's EdGE, aim to encourage students to think more critically about their own positionality and the root causes of the social issues that they (and the host organizations they work with) seek to address. While they believe that cultivating critical consciousness is important, in this paper, they highlight two challenges that can emerge from this approach: 

1. In our experience, students who engage in deeper reflection on the implications of their intentions to ‘help others’ sometimes report feeling a sense of frustration, alienation, discomfort, and deflation rather than a sense of success or satisfaction at having ‘helped.’
2. In some cases, students end up directing their frustrations towards the work of their own host organizations, especially when they perceive these organizations to be providing ‘band-aid’ solutions rather than addressing the root causes.

The research focuses on three case studies reflect on the following scenarios: "Corruption is Deeply Cultural": Student Conflates Structural Violence and Cultural Difference; "Outsiders": Student Reflections on Positionality and Local Authority "Just Filling in the Gaps": Student Reflections on Organizational Sustainability and Efficacy. You can access the full article in Impact's Summer 2019 Journal

They concluded that:

Rather than providing volunteers with answers, solutions, and a self-congratulatory opportunity to ‘give back,’ critical service-learning demands that students ask more questions, challenge themselves, and realize the shortcomings of attempts to ‘help others’ without a radical change to global structures of power. To some extent, such a perspective, if internalized, is bound to leave volunteers feeling unsettled. 

The authors state that "although it is tempting to want to prevent or protect students from feelings of disappointment, alienation, frustration, and confusion, we submit that the student emotions we have explored in these case studies are to be expected and even celebrated when they emerge through students’ engagements with difference. These sentiments may even be considered evidence of students’ learning, especially insofar as our aim as critical educators is not to help students feel that they have ‘done their part,’ but rather to encourage them to realize the limits of their ability to create meaningful change without challenging dominant structures of oppression and inequality".

This realization is rarely comfortable, but we agree that "a healthy sense of discomfort about the shape of one’s world and one’s role within it is in fact a worthy learning outcome in and of itself. The bigger existential question, then, is how to help students work through this sort of discomfort with love and lightheartedness rather than allowing it to metastasize into bitterness and antagonism".


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