By Aiya Leah Staller
As an individual with a history of working with various social justice organizations while committing to studying power dynamics, oppression, and how systems affect communities, I felt at a loss entering this Service-Learning Trip. The preparation has proved to be a shadow-illuminating process as I confront my own guilt and shame around owning the unearned privileges that I have. I’ve made this type of journey before, but this time I re-visited things that I thought I had “moved past” so-to-speak. I don’t know that I will ever truly move past them. Instead, I will live with them and do what I must to reconcile this within myself. Being stuck with guilt and shame will not serve me. Instead, I seek a way to stay connected and continue to work towards what helps heal the inequalities in the world.
Part of the reason that human trafficking happens, is because of systems that benefit a few. Systems, such as unlivable wages for garment workers, objectification of women, or the false orphanages that profit off of uninformed volunteers, anger me (Barry, 1994; Zakaria, 2014). This is just a piece of the multi-faceted issue of human/sex-trafficking’s relationship to poverty and systemic oppression. I didn’t want to accept my own privileges, as it feels uncomfortable to know that I simultaneously benefit and am hurt by the inequalities in the world. Also, knowing that people may see me as part of the problem, even as I strive to not be, is a difficult path to walk. A part of me wondered, “Maybe it is true, I am just part of the problem and it would be better if I just leave them alone.” I feared not being enough, or knowing enough, to be of service.
At the beginning of the year, a rising desire to drop out of the trip was related to fear of working with my own blind spots and anger, especially since I have held such passion for social justice work. I wanted to question other peoples’ role in contributing to systems of oppression, not my own relationship to it in the context of a service-learning trip. Acknowledging developing an international relationship as a dance of needed ambiguity and unknowns is uncomfortable. Even though I have some powerful teachers in the form of supervisors, NGO therapists, clients, a personal therapist, and peers, sitting with the truths of disconnection and violence is still difficult. I wanted to do things the comfortable known way, not the messy way, where my own relationship with these forces is brought to light. I’m realizing that working with things as they are is the best that I can do right now.
In art therapy, we speak of the alchemical elements of the creative process (Kalmanowitz, Potash, & Chan, 2012, p. 318). Through becoming absorbed in a process, all elements are transformed. The preparation for this Service-Learning trip has been an alchemical process for me. It has challenged me to explore hard questions and look at my own cultural edges. By staying with this, I notice my excitement grow as I sit with my art materials while imagining meeting people and creating art together. This process is not complete. When I do meet the people of Cambodia, we will truly enter the container of cultural learning and transformation. This is the parallel experience of healing in a therapeutic relationship that transpersonal psychology speaks of (Cortright, 1997).
As part of the process of developing international community, I have been interested in how an individual shows up in the world. A quote by Parker Palmer comes to mind, “Community cannot take root in a divided life. Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must be present as a seed in the undivided self: only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 128). I am doing the work on this side of the world to prepare for meeting the women at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), where I will be presenting a self-care art process. Acknowledging, being gentle with, and accepting all that comes up in myself is part of the work that I need to do in order to be present there.
One day, during this learning process, I found myself crying, upset, and wanting to destroy something out of my frustration with feeling powerless in relationship to these systems. My sister, who has been an inspirational devotee to social and environmental justice for me, shared an article about the practice of service. In it, there was written, “Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude” (Remen, 1999). I’m so grateful for this trip preparation process. I’ve learned to stop more and connect to the beauty and resilience there is in this world as well. I don’t need to fix systems right now. I can strive to show up as my whole self with the people in front of me. Maybe that is part of the secret to systemic healing all along; acknowledging our inter-connection and practicing not turning away. The learning will continue from here.
Many of the original critical questions I held have dropped away in the final 6 days before leaving for Cambodia. I’m beyond excited to serve and learn there, as we have been invited and welcomed. I find myself, instead of being filled with guilt, overwhelmed with gratitude for the privilege that I have to go on this trip, practice art therapy in Cambodia with the people there, and be given the opportunity to embrace and be confronted by my own human-ness.
Barry, K. (1994). Female sexual slavery. New York University Press.
Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.
Hooks, B. (2000). All about love: new visions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Kalmanowitz, D., Potash, J., & Chan, S. M. (2012). Art therapy in Asia: to the bone or wrapped in silk. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Remen, N. (1999). Helping, fixing, or serving? Shambbhala sun.
Zakaria, R. (2014). Poverty is not a spectacle. The New York Times (May 1).