Volunteering and New Ways of Doing Activism

Initially, I planned out an ambitious activist project, which consisted of collecting pads and tampons for homeless women, from the students of UMBC. Despite the initial rush I felt at coming up with an idea that I felt fit the definition of activism perfectly, my project soon crashed and burned because of inadequate preparation and awareness of exactly what I needed to do. This was a disappointing blow for me, but as the semester went on and I learned more about activism, both from GWST 200 and from the actions of others around me, especially with regard to the events in Baltimore, I realized that something else I was doing throughout this spring counted as activism. That is, it was something that was effecting positive change, even though it was not on a relatively large scale and did not immediately seem radical.

Early this spring, as part of the Shriver Center’s service-learning, I had begun volunteering at The Samaritan Women, which describes itself as “a national Christian organization providing restorative care to survivors, and bringing about an end to domestic human trafficking through awareness, prevention, and advocacy” (thesamaritanwomen.org). It serves as a safe place for recovery for women who have been victims of human trafficking, and I learned more about this issue during my time volunteering there. Although I had known about the basics of the complicated issue of human trafficking, I had known very little about what happens to survivors of human trafficking, especially regarding how they have to transition into a larger society that may not understand their needs. I volunteered on several Saturdays throughout the spring, learning a little more about this issue and what I could to do help each time.

Samaritan Women's Center

The state of the grounds before cleaning up.

Much of my volunteering consisted of helping clean up the grounds, which took the form of cutting vines off trees, clearing debris, and planting flowers. I also helped organize some indoor areas, such as  a small store-like area that had clothes, sanitary products, and makeup for the women in treatment to take. I considered these activities, rather than activism, because I did not feel like I was doing anything radical or life-changing, but then I saw how much importance was given to these actions by the organization. Helping clean up and beautify the grounds is a way of expressing care and support for these women, while they are recovering from extremely traumatic experiences. Making sure that they have access to basic necessities, such as clothes and makeup, also supports them emotionally. It also enables the Samaritan Women organization to concentrate their resources more strongly on additional things that will help these women.

The state of the grounds before cleaning up.

The state of the grounds before cleaning up.

I also shared what I had learned about human trafficking and the Samaritan Women’s Center with some friends, classmates, and sorority sisters. Because I had been so unaware about the long-term impact of human trafficking on survivors, I wanted others to become aware, even if they could not also volunteer with the Samaritan Women. Doing this relates to the importance of activist histories, in which “telling stories that are not yet known can be a kind of activism”. I also tried to encourage those close to me to volunteer too, by casually asking, “I’m going to do some volunteering tomorrow. Would you like to come with me?” The earlier failure of my initial activist project had also taught me that it was important to speak up and share activist ideas with others, because not doing so led to stagnation of ideas and action. In addition, I feel that sharing my feelings about volunteering with others may also help them become more involved in service, because it shows how volunteering can really make a difference, even if it is on a small scale.

Brightening up the grounds, floral-style.

Brightening up the grounds, floral-style.

In summary, I feel that I learned a lot this semester from my experiences with activism. Although I initially was not successful, I was able to regroup and use what I had learned from my initial failure to gain a new perspective on my service and realize it as an activist project in itself. Moving on from this semester, my goal is to use what I have learned this spring to revise my original activist project into something that is more feasible, and still self-driven, but has a strong base of support. I also have the goal of continuing to volunteer, not just with Samaritan Women, but with other area charities, such as Manna House. To quote Martin Luther King Jr. on the importance of volunteering and service, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”.

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