I’ve heard a lot of stories about volunteers, usually American, going into another region or country and trying to “fix” their culture. This usually stems from the idea that a region’s culture is “primitive” or “savage,” even if those going to help don’t admit it. And of course, in a state like West Virginia, where poverty and obesity levels are high, and availability of healthy food and levels of education are low, it is easy to come in with a perception of Appalachia as a more primitive or “lower-class” culture than ours. Many people who come with the intention of “fixing” an area or its residents end up making the situation worse than it was, at least in the eyes of the residents.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve the situations of people in these areas. As I said, the region of West Virginia that our youth group is going to is the poorest county in the US, where obesity and poverty are rampant. Healthy, local food is practically absent, and access to resources that we in Massachusetts take for granted lags behind most of the rest of the country. So it’s pretty obvious that there are some things that we could do to actually help the residents of Williamson without them resenting us or rejecting our aid. It is important to go about the service that we do in a way that doesn’t disrupt the community of Williamson, but still improves it. So what’s the way to do this?
I believe that instead of going into an unfamiliar community and trying to change everything to suit what we think of as “right” or “better,” it is far more productive to try and improve what’s already there. If we do this, we can improve the situation of one of the most impoverished regions in the country, while not intruding on the way they want things to be, and without changing their way of life.
Written by Ezra Morrison