As mentioned previously, I volunteer at the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC. When I first visited the LAYC, I did not know whether I belonged or not. I personally did not feel out of place because growing up, most of the people I chose to surround myself with were either Black or Latino; however, I was too worried about whether I was infiltrating a safe space. Because this community organization aims to support the youth of minority communities, namely young latino youth, I felt like an intruder. I have had to take a step back and assess the White Savior Complex that I might be perpetuating. I had to ask myself, “Why would these youth want your help when you come from the community that has kept them contained to social marginalization?” This has led me to remain in a headspace of, “Speak only when spoken to [or when told to translate]”.
This has led me to remain in a headspace of, “Speak only when spoken to [or when told to translate]”. I recall from my earlier blog that I thought “time is the best solution” and that after a few weeks go by, the students would hopefully have become more accustomed to my presence. Honestly, I think these students are accustomed to my presence, but I think they do question my role. This is where I have become my greatest obstacle: because I am so worried about not perpetuating the White Savior Complex, I do not interact as much as I should, which in turn leads to the students not being as receptive to me, which then causes everyone to feel a looming presence of awkwardness. The last session I went to (March 31st, 2017), I did not say anything at all. Part of me was relieved because I did not have to stress over whether the students would judge my Spanish or not. (Being completely fluent in a language other than your native one still comes with not being confident at all times because not only do you feel the immense pressure of proving people that you are fluent, but you feel like the native speakers will pick apart every syllable of your spoken word.) On the other hand, I still felt really useless. Why did I come all the way here to not do anything? I know I demonstrated my dedication by showing up, but overall, I have just created so much anxiety for myself with my own perception of my “gringa” presence. After all of this is said and done, I then think to myself, “You speak Spanish fluently with no accent. Maybe this changes their perception of your character. Give them and yourself the benefit of the doubt.” (One can see how I overthink myself into some pretty dragged out situations…)
I still have not asked any of the staff or students how they feel about my “gringa” presence. Again, this is my fault because I just try to get in and get out. In these last few weeks of volunteering, I have a goal to ask the staff more about their views on diversity, inclusion, safe space, and how they perceive me. Maybe I can finally get some clarity and peace within myself for five seconds.
The Latin American Youth Center is in a neighborhood in D.C. called Columbia Heights. Since I live in Foggy Bottom, I take either the blue, silver, or orange line from the GWU-Foggy Bottom Metro Station to the L’Enfant Plaza station. From there, I take either the yellow or green line to the Columbia Heights station. Walking to the LAYC from the metro station is nice because it is not too far, but I still get to walk a few blocks (I personally like being able to walk to and from places, it is just too time consuming to walk directly from my dorm to the LAYC). Walking through the neighborhood, I see a lot more people of color than I do in Foggy Bottom. I actually feel more comfortable that way because I do not feel like I am being trapped in one perspective.
The people at the LAYC are very nice. They all are so dedicated to their work and the students themselves, proving that they make respectable mentors. My orientation was basically just a walk-through of the four floors of the LAYC. It was nothing uptight, which was refreshing because I felt less pressure to fit the predictable image of “studious volunteer”. The person giving me the orientation tour, Pam, was really enthusiastic because she told me she was a student who went through the LAYC’s programs. Her energy is a great fit for the LAYC, and everyone there genuinely appreciates Pam.
My role in the organization is to be a translator in the guitar class. Every Friday, I sit in the guitar class from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and I basically repeat what the guitar teacher tells me to tell the students who do not understand English. Honestly, I feel kind of useless in that role because most of the students in the guitar class speak English and Spanish. Why did they need me to be a translator? Why not just get one of the bilingual students to translate? Thinking back on this, it is probably because some of the bilingual students do not always show up. Even recognizing this, I still feel weird because I feel as if some of the students perceive me as “that gringa” that does not really know anything. For example, I had to translate something for the teacher, but it had musical diction that I had never even heard of in English – let alone in Spanish – and I had to work my way around the vocabulary. The students looked at me as if I had four heads, then another one of the students translated it, and they all seemed to understand. I felt as if I failed the people who recruited me. Needless to say, I have a little ways to go to feel like I belong in that role. Time is the best solution because after a few more weeks go by, the regulars at the LAYC and guitar class will – hopefully- get accustomed to my presence.
Some questions going through my instrospective mind as I sit in the guitar class are:
- How do the students feel about my “gringa” presence in general?
- How does the staff feel about my “gringa” presence?
- Do the students think I am feeding into the White Savior Complex?
- Would the students actually like to get to know me better?
- One of the main goal of the organizations is to motivate the students to pursue higher education. What do they do for the students that have the mental capacity but not the financial capacity?