I have never ever been in the company of a group of university students (here on the ground in Cambodia) anything quite like you.
That’s saying something; it puts you in some very good company with people whom I hold in high regard and whose ideas and experience I value.
I tend to want to draw very clear lines around the volunteer projects that I think are “useful”, “helpful”, and those that are not. I find that those boundaries shift every now and then and as an organization, we are working towards creating more meaningful and deliberate exchanges between people that want to participate in PLF’s work and the communities we serve. What is the purpose of volunteer engagement? How do we address the inherent contradictions in supporting volunteerism in Cambodia– individuals coming from tremendous wealth (relatively speaking) and privilege who are collectively complicit in creating the conditions they are attempting to try and “fix”?
Based on my experience with all of you from Lang, I think part of the answer lies in moving from a narrow and ad-hoc volunteering model to one of civic engagement. Volunteering is showing up. Civic engagement is showing up and paying attention.
In order to make this shift, Jas, Andrea and I worked hard long before you ever got here to shape the scope of your field projects. Thank you for working with us to make sure they were appropriate and needed. I loved that you were able to be flexible at all times, roll with the constant changes and redirection, and still retain the core purpose of your individual pieces of work. Cambodia is an unpredictable place; it’s important to have an ear to the ground here and stay detached from rigid outcomes. You all did an excellent job with this, not everyone can.
These are just a few of the moments when I knew your field projects were being delivered as intended:
1. When I learned the gardener got on board with composting;
2. When I saw the students at Srayang peek into the microscopic world for the first time to see their own head lice;
3. When I saw you connecting with high school girls as they drew vaginas and talked about the real world (including their fears and hopes);
4. When I saw you understand and document the struggles of hopeful 9th graders during interviews for secondary school scholarships;
5. And don’t forget the small things like Chess, Chutes & Ladders, and Global Float–these seem small but matter greatly.
Even still, I know each one of you at the end of your stay here would say that you got more than you gave and that you will leave Cambodia in love with this land and the people who struggle, laugh and love within it. I know your heart no longer feels the borders that separate people and that you have collapsed the distances between them. I know you will go home and continue to think deeply about the world and your place in it. In wondering what that means, I know you will persist in asking uncomfortable questions about your (our) complicity in a world where a small minority reign over the majority.
What to DO? Who knows.
The only thing we can possibly know is how to BE. Be something that has suddenly broadened. Keep with you the things you now know in a very personal way about the struggle of so many of our brothers and sisters in this world. Cambodia is just one of so many; too many places in the world where people are suffering so that we don’t have to.
We need to ask more questions about that. I hope we can do better.
I am so humbled by your openness and ability to find the humor in all things. This has been a gift. It has been an honor to work beside all of you, to ask the questions that have no obvious answers. And to keep asking, in another way, and yet another. To fully explore that uncomfortableness. To broaden. Thank you for sharing the experience of this on-going process with me.
To Jas, I would like to say that you did a perfect job preparing these Lang students and that your leadership in all of this has been one amazing feat after another. You just keep raising the bar.
Props to Andrea for all the google docs and keeping Jas’s rather HECTIC schedule running on time with no fuss. You are the Queen of the Cat Herders.
This is already too long but I have so much more to say. I think you all probably already know what those things are though, so I will just say that it was my (our) rare pleasure to have you here. You made me think deeply about our strengths and challenges as an organization and brought fresh perspectives to the way we understand PLF’s mission. I hold that as a treasure.
I have the feeling I might see a couple of you again down the road. I hope so.