(Related slide show)

Gina Stiens
Adam Renner


Contact Lenses (Audre Lorde)

Lacking what they want to see
makes my eyes hungry
and eyes can feel
only pain.
Once I lived behind thick walls
of glass
and my eyes belonged
to a different ethic
timidly rubbing the edges
of whatever turned them on.
Seeing usually
was a matter of what was
in front of my eyes
matching what was
behind my brain.
Now my eyes have become
a part of me exposed
quick risky and open
to all the same dangers.

I see much
better now
and my eyes hurt.



We arrived in Jamaica quite by accident.  Call us accidental missionaries turned (wannabe) radical reformers with a revolutionary spirit who are guided by an organic intellectualism that seeks to level out Global North and Global South relationships.  We think of this evolving organic intellectualism in the same way Cornel West (1999) interprets Antonio Gramsci’s concept: “Participants in the life of the mind who revel in ideas and relate ideas to action by means of creating, constituting, or consolidating constituencies for moral aims and political purposes” (p. 146).  The power dynamic between North and South we wish to interrupt is perhaps most easily illustrated by the fact that no Jamaican would have, nor could have, accidentally landed in our neighborhood to engage in the same kind of service we performed a decade ago (though similar kind of work is necessary in our city).

The privilege as Global North citizens we assert, assume, and (often) forget allows us to move across boundaries about which our partners in the steamy hillside communities surrounding Montego Bay, Jamaica can/could only dream. Short of a massive structural power shift, we wonder to what extent we might make horizontal our vertical relationships with schools and children’s homes in the Global South toward justice-driven partnerships characterized by solidarity.

In this paper we begin with a discussion of David Gil’s (1998) differentiation between “short-range goals” and “long-range goals,” as well as Paul Kivel’s (2000) concept of “social service” vs. “social change” in order to provide a framework for an examination of our work.  Ultimately, we want to figure out ways to move more toward the social change end of that continuum.  We also examine our role as “buffer zone” agents, sometimes serving, unconsciously, the status quo which we intend to interrupt.  Next, we think about ingredients that should characterize Global North/South partnerships, examining specifically the idea of a “caring solidarity” and Paul Farmer’s (2004) concept of charity vs. development vs. social justice projects.   Next, we outline what we have done over the last ten years in Jamaica and critique our work in light of the concepts of social service or social change.  Finally, we consider the extent to which our work has not met the criteria for social justice and/or social change how we might tip the balance to get there.  Ultimately, we want this work to be about “getting together,” collectively and organizationally, with those with whom we propose to ‘serve’.

In this paper we write so others seeking this change might read one more chapter of struggle, might feel compelled to intercede in and join our dialogue, and/or might help us begin to think more broadly, more pragmatically (or revolutionary), and more deeply about the possibilities.  Like Paulo Freire, we are convicted that change is possible.  This is our hope-driven process.

Transcend ‘Normal’ through the lens of Kivel’s social service vs. social change, as well as Gil’s short and long range goals

As our work has evolved from accidental missionaries turned (wannabe) radical reformers, our lens has also moved from “behind thick walls of glass” toward “a part of [us] exposed.” In this exposure we continue to seek a deeper understanding of this North/South relationship, our purpose, and our potential impact. To this end, Gil proposes:

Whenever people interact in everyday life, their actions and communications can either conform to, or challenge, the social status quo and prevailing patterns of human relations.  When people speak and act within the range of “normal” expected behavior, they reinforce the existing social order and its “common-sense” consciousness.  On the other hand, when people’s words and deeds transcend “normal” behavioral ranges by questioning and challenging the status quo, they create opportunities for the emergence of reflection and critical consciousness on the part of others with whom they interact (p. 53).

Both Kivel and Gil have aided in this evolution.  We remain vigilant and continuously reflect on our work in order to “transcend ‘normal.’”

Gil, in his attempt to provide direction for social workers to impact social change, encourages a balance of short- and long-range goals.  He identifies short-range goals as both necessary and ethically valid to reduce the intensity of injustice and oppression as quickly as possible.  However, he also cautions that they cannot be confused with or substituted for fundamental social change (long-range goals) to address these injustices at their roots.  Long-range goals, then, are those of social transformations that will be a lengthy process of countercultural education toward critical consciousness.  According to Gil, long-range visions must reflect the common interests of every individual and social group and must be truly democratic.  Long-range work requires persistent efforts and struggles.  We should also remember that both short- and long-range goals are important to provide services to those in immediate need struggling in the current structure, and social change to work toward just and equitable institutions and systems. 

This is similar to Kivel’s concepts of “social service” and “social change” in which our work can help individuals “get ahead” or encourage communities to “get together” for broader change and social empowerment.  He encourages social workers to deeply examine their role, and stresses that social service may be simply maintaining the status quo rather than making any true change.  There exist many ways in which we (knowingly or unknowingly) fulfill our role to maintain an unjust system.  Kivel describes the “buffer zone” as a function that allows the ruling class to avoid direct interaction with those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  We have a network of occupations, careers, and professions to act as buffers and to carry out the agenda of the ruling class. Some are in the managerial class (top 19%), but most fall at the top of the bottom (80%).  They have a little economic security and just enough power to make decisions about other people’s lives.  The three primary functions of the buffer zone include:

  • Taking care of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  This includes social welfare workers, nurses, teachers, counselors, and case workers— occupations found primarily in the bottom 80% of the pyramid and primarily identified as women’s work.
  • Keeping hope alive in order to sustain the myth that anyone can make it in this society—that we have a level playing field.  The purpose is to convince us if we just work hard, follow the rules, and don’t challenge the social order, then we too can get ahead and gain some benefits from the system.
  • Social control is traditionally fulfilled by male roles to maintain the system and prevent change.  The purpose is to keep people in their place in the family, in schools, in the neighborhood, and even other countries.  Occupations may include police, security guards, prison wardens, soldiers, deans, administrators, immigration officials, and fathers.

In addition, the buffer zone strategy “encourages us to feel good about helping a small number of individuals get ahead, while large numbers of people remain exploited, abused, and disenfranchised” (Kivel, p. 12). Kivel argues for a provision of social service while simultaneously empowering people to get together for social change. 

Our work at the intersection of compassion and justice (Could I get some directions, please?)

Service learning has enjoyed a nice run in the academy and in K-12 education, providing a critical and reflective enhancement over traditional community service projects.  But, like its predecessor, service learning is losing some of its critical edge.  In many spaces, it has become little more than check-off-the-box-sign-off-on-my-sheet service projects in which students engage the community through traditional ‘server’ / ‘served’ roles, providing charitable work for those ‘in need’. Similarly, social work has traditionally fulfilled the role of “taking care” in our social service systems, rather than addressing social injustice at its roots to make broader change.  Though social work encourages us to be aware of and work to change the power dynamic in the worker/client relationship, it tends to only encourage this at an individual level.  In our own work on service learning (what Adam cut his graduate teeth on), we have attempted to keep the progressive edge in service learning, imagining the possibility of leveling out vertical/hierarchical ‘server’ / ‘served’ relations into something more reciprocal, more humanizing, more solidaristic. 

In fact, in his dissertation work, Adam crafted a theoretical frame for service learning that considers the formation of a caring solidarity between ‘server’ and ‘served’, merging individualistic notions of care with structural considerations of social justice.  This caring solidarity, then, seeks to (1) overcome boundaries, (2) promote transparent and transformative dialog, (3) build trusting, reciprocal relations, (4) seek long term effects, (5) bridge the gap between the structural/theoretical and the individual/practical toward more critical consciousness, and (6) democratize server/served roles.  These notions have provided the backdrop against which we have established our partnerships in Jamaica over the last decade.

As well, our work is influenced by Paul Farmer, a medical doctor and an anthropologist who conceives of work with the disenfranchised/marginalized/oppressed as falling into one of three categories: charity, development, or social justice.

In terms of charity, Farmer suggests that the ‘server’ operates on the ‘served’ using a deficit model--‘they’ are intrinsically inferior.  This approach presupposes there will always be those who have and those who have not. Freire even asserts, “In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well.” In other work with Matt Masucci (2000), Adam calls this an evangelistic approach to service in which the ‘server’ essentially serves one’s self.  Even more provocatively, perhaps, Galeano suggests, Charity consoles but does not question. ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,’ Brazilian bishop Helder Camara said. ‘And when I ask why they have no food, they call me a communist.’ Unlike solidarity, which is horizontal and takes place between equals, charity is top down, humiliating those who receive it and never challenging the implicit power relations.  In the best of cases, there will be justice someday, high in heaven.  Here on earth, charity doesn’t worry injustice, it just tries to hide it.” This also relates directly to Kivel’s buffer zone role in which the ‘server’ has the task of taking care of the ‘served’, or those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

In terms of development, this approach implies that ‘they’ too can share ‘our’ standard of living (while ignoring, of course, that our standard depends on their substandard).  We can again link this approach to Kivel’s buffer zone role of ‘keeping hope alive’ in which it is believed that anyone can make it if you just work hard enough.  This approach tends to blame the victim—that is, it places the problem with the poor themselves, rather than on the structure that forces them to live a particular way: the growth of poverty is dependent on the growth of wealth. Masucci and Adam call this a missionary approach to service for which ‘servers’ serve perceived needs. To this end, Gil observes, “As long as inequalities, at any level, are considered legitimate and are being enforced by governments, competitive interactions focused on restructuring inequalities tend to continue among individuals, social groups, and classes, and a genuine sense of community and solidarity is unlikely to evolve” (p. 26).

Lastly, in terms of social justice, work begins from a premise that the world is deeply flawed. ‘Servers’ believe that the condition of the poor is not only unacceptable, it is the result of structural violence that is human made, perhaps self-made. Relative to this notion, Fr. Juan Segundo offers, “The world that is satisfying to us is the same world that is utterly devastating to them.” Thus, we are all implicated in the creation or maintenance of structural violence so a posture of penitence and indignation is critical.  This sort of approach implies not a working for, but a working with—a humble, more contextual, more connected approach.  This approach can be linked to Gil’s concept of “structural transformation” which “aims to alleviate unmet needs, but also to develop critical consciousness concerning social realities, and to organize and act against destructive societal conditions that obstruct fulfillment of their needs” (p. 82).

A brief history of our trips

Our trips to Jamaica began in 1998.  Our itinerary the first year had been arranged by an organization that sponsored a friend’s mission trip, so we were heavily reliant on their guidance to specific sites for our service projects.  As we did not have a firmly articulated plan as to what our “project” was, we just characterized our trip as one of wanting to go and help in anyway we could in schools and orphanages.  Help, we found, was something most of these places were looking for—along with exhaustive lists of supplies. During that first year, which was an intervention of eleven days, traveling with several high school students, we visited a few orphanages and two schools.  Unfortunately, most of the places we visited were not expecting our arrival as the individual who had designed our itinerary had not bothered to inform any of these locations that we were coming.  We soon caught on to this pattern and began to reconfigure our itinerary based on our limited experience in the few places we had been.  During that first trip, then, we focused our attention on three orphanages and two churches, where we regularly attended services at night and on the weekend.  As a result of this first experience, we knew we would be back.

Plans for the second trip began taking place shortly after our return to the US as thoughts of what we had seen and experienced remained near.  Preparations for this second trip, which we problematically termed “Mission 99,” were much more involved as we planned our own itinerary with the organizations we had visited the previous year and engaged in fund-raising activities to help offset our own expenses and to raise money and supplies for the needs of the orphanages and one school (affiliated with one of the churches we had visited).  We successfully raised quite a bit of money and awareness regarding the trip and twenty-nine people made the second intervention in Jamaica.  This trip focused on the three main orphanages we had visited the first year: bringing supplies, as well as feeding, taking care of, and playing with the children.  In these orphanages, like the first year, we encountered rooms full of children with little support staff to handle the overwhelming needs of the children. We also had an opportunity to teach in the school that was housed inside one of the churches just east of Montego Bay.  Here we encountered a school/church covered with a tin roof, supported by concrete block walls, and filled to the brim with homemade desks, fifty children, and one teacher.

Noting the problematic “mission” theme and our meeting with a Christian group outside of a church during the second year (who tried to ‘save’ us), plans for additional years did not include any hint of mission (though we understand the difficulty of extricating ourselves from this connotation).  During the third year, we framed our trip as one of “building bridges.” A group of eight of us went that third year—six of whom had been previously—and we stayed for twenty-eight days, working in two of the orphanages and the church/school.  For this intervention, we again brought supplies to the orphanages and school and taught a week’s worth of self-developed lessons at the school. A similar fourth trip happened in 2001 lasting two weeks.

In 2002, our fifth trip provided the backdrop for Adam’s dissertation study on international service learning, which involved co-teaching a class at Thomas More College and helping lead the service learning trip with our partners in Jamaica.  This trip was themed: “sharing stories,” and resulted in the service learning framework of caring solidarity noted above.

Taking a break in 2003 to be married we returned to Jamaica in 2004 and launched the trip in cooperation with the Center for Cooperative Study Abroad.  This study abroad experience connected us with many of Gina’s social work cohorts and created the conditions in which theoretical study neatly wove itself into our service work as part of this ‘study abroad’ experience. 

In 2005 we made both a spring and summer trip, working with two of the orphanages and one school.  In 2006 we returned with a group of ten to continue the work.  In 2007 Gina added the dimension of poetry to our service experience as a way to connect ourselves more deeply with our work and our partners.  Provocative reflections from and discussion among the participants over email followed this experience throughout most of the remainder of the year.

This year, as we plan for our tenth anniversary, we are making the usual trip to work with our service partners, but we are extending our trip in order to begin partnering with the physical therapy program at Bellarmine University. The students in this doctoral program will considerably enhance the partnership with one of the children’s homes in particular, which is populated by kids with physical and/or cognitive disabilities.

What (we think) we’ve accomplished

Given the above backdrop of trip experiences, this section delves a little deeper into the particular service partners with whom we developed the longer lasting relationships.

We have worked with Blossom Gardens Children’s Home since 1998.  Blossom Gardens is a state run facility that houses children ages birth to seven.  Here we bring food, medicine, and toiletries; help with construction projects; and provide money where possible.

We have similarly worked with West Haven Children’s Home since 1998. West Haven is home to residents ages four to adult.  It is a privately run facility which caters to folks who have cognitive or physical disabilities. Here we bring food, medicine and toiletries, as well as money where possible. We have also helped outfit a local men’s football team and schedule scrimmages with them yearly.  (This often turns out to be quite a community event!).  Again, this is also the location at which we will be partnering with the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Bellarmine University in 2008.

We worked with Ambassadors for Christ School from 1999-2004There we provided books and school supplies, taught lessons in their school, helped to rebuild their roof, and brought money where possible.

Finally, we have also worked with Mrs. Althea Kaye (and her Barrett Hall Basic School).  We began working with her in 1999 when she taught at Ambassadors for Christ School. When she left the school in 2003, our attention slowly turned more toward her work with the opening of an independent school. For her we have provided books, school supplies, a stove (for fixing lunch for the school children), and desks.  We have consistently taught lessons in her school year after year.  Adam served on her school boardOur team provided a down payment on her land (on which both the school and her home reside). We have sponsored and hosted the graduation ceremonies for her school (2004-2006) at a local Jamaican-owned hotelAnd, currently, a small group of us are financially sponsoring her formal teacher certification at Sam Sharpe Teacher’s College and providing a monthly stipend to her family.

More individually, our work has also brought us close to one Jamaican family in particular, whom we met on our very first trip to Jamaica in 1998.  With this family, we were able to secure a full scholarship for their son, Franklyn, to Bellarmine University (where he is now a junior pre-med student with a 3.75 GPA).  As well, we were able to financially sponsor his family to immigrate to the US in 2007.

In total, we have introduced more than seventy different people to our Jamaican partners, a parallel service trip is now offered through Thomas More College for which their students work with our same partners in order that we might extend our presence and help in Jamaica, and a budding partnership is forming between our Doctor of Physical Therapy program and West Haven Children’s Home.

So have we been engaged in social service or social change? Getting together and speaking out

Generally, our work has unfolded more along the lines of social service/short-range goals.  Our trips are usually about 10 days to two weeks long, during which we attempt to meet the immediate needs in the children’s homes and schools with which we are partnering.  Though our work itself has spanned ten years thus far, it has primarily helped individuals get ahead within the current unjust system rather than working to get people together to challenge those systems.  We don’t wish to diminish the impact of our work for the individuals with whom we have worked.  The opportunities for Franklyn to attend a university in the US and for Mrs. Kaye to work on her teaching certification are, indeed, significant. These chances can, potentially, lead to further change as they begin to use their newly gained power.  We are simply taking a critical look at our work with Jamaica and applying the lenses we have discussed, so we can only strengthen our impact.

What does set our work in Jamaica apart from other social service work is our continued evolution throughout the past ten years.  We continuously and critically reflect on our work, challenge ourselves to improve, and enact change year after year.  While this reflection has been emotional at times, we often feel as though “[we] see much better now and [our] eyes hurt.” 

Long-range goals are difficult to measure because their impact is yet to be determined in many cases.  One area where our work has the potential to impact social change is in the movement toward critical consciousness among the groups who travel with us each year.  Critical consciousness can “serve as a medium for critical reflection, and as a source for innovation of ways of life, based on alternative perceptions of needs and interests.  Such transformations of consciousness can be communicated to others, and can lead to collective actions aimed at social and cultural transformations” (Gil, p. 41).  Each year the preparation prior to the trip and reflection following the trip has been increasingly strengthened as consciousness is transformed.  We now need to take the next step of collective action.

So along with our more localized service efforts in the children’s homes and schools; our more particularized involvement with Franklyn, his family, and Mrs. Kaye; and our consciousness-raising process with the ‘servers’ (especially as they weave themselves back into their professional roles in US culture as teachers, social workers, artists, etc.), we endeavor to evolve the possibility of our organic intellectualism by seeking out local change movements in Jamaica and the Caribbean.  What movements, advocacy groups, revolutionary sensibilities already exist in Jamaica?  How can we, as residents of the Global North, who maintain access to particular knowledge and resources, join with indigenous movements who possess the lived knowledge and experience of the struggle?  What can we offer?  What can we learn? 

We very much consider these questions, in a Freirean way, along two lines: (1) Freire claims that any constructive social change will require the horizontal partnering of a segment of those privileged by the system with those oppressed by the system and (2) Freire claims we cannot do this work without hope—a critical sort of hope that is characterized by love, creativity, and a profound sense of struggle.  We also keep in mind the following indigenous proverb: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.  But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

In any event, we hope our drive toward these more democratic, progressive, and perhaps revolutionary partnerships will help lead to the social change necessary to improve the lives of us all.  As well, we hope to stay strong and visible in the struggle, acknowledging that our privilege and socialization will often lead us back to the “path of least resistance.” (Johnson, 2006).  At a minimum, we hope to keep our voices strong.   


A Litany for Survival (Audre Lorde)

  For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.