As much as I dislike church-sponsored mission trips, especially short-term ones that don’t really help people in developing countries (but make for a great photo-op), I have to admire the way some Christians are willing to go overseas in order to help people they’ve never met. Even if proselytizing is included in the mix, those trips can make a big difference.
Conor Robinson wanted to create an atheist version of a mission trip — minus the proselytizing — and that’s why he began the Humanist Service Corps, a project of Foundation Beyond Belief. He’s currently leading a team in Ghana for his second stint overseas, and he’s looking for team members to join him beginning this summer.
He was kind enough to answer my questions about his work.
What is the HSC and what are you up to this year?
The Humanist Service Corps (HSC) is an international volunteering program run by Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). HSC is a logical extension of FBB’s Humanist Giving program, which provides catalyst grants to small organizations with a track record of effective, data-driven innovation. HSC expands upon this idea by providing assistance in the form of volunteers to a smaller subset of such organizations. The Humanist Service Corps approach emphasizes close collaboration with a grassroots partner organization not just because it embodies humanist ideals but also because it is more effective and sustainable. There is no profounder expression of Humanism than to enter a foreign environment seeking to learn rather than to teach, to listen rather than to speak, and to understand rather than to judge. This is the work of the Humanist Service Corps. We are behind-the-scenes facilitators working to help local organizations and leaders implement the solutions thy devise for the problems they identify.
Currently, the Humanist Service Corps is partnering with Songtaba, a women’s rights organization working to end gender-based violence and discrimination in the Northern Region of Ghana. One of the most striking manifestations of this discrimination is in the witch-hunting and forced exile that primarily targets elderly women in the rural areas. As part of its overall efforts to empower women in the Northern Region, Songtaba seeks to improve the living conditions at the camps these women flee to when they are accused. Toward that end, HSC volunteers are organizing a dual health screening/medical records project and overseeing the construction of a water filtration system for the people of Kukuo, one of the camps for alleged witches.
By itself, elevating the standard of living in the camps for alleged witches most likely won’t stop future witchcraft accusations from occurring. That cessation will require human rights, education, livelihood, and healthcare initiatives in the feeding communities, the towns where accusations occur. Thus, HSC and Songtaba are also identifying ways future HSC volunteers and Songtaba staff can work to eliminate the circumstances that lead to accusations in the towns where accusations occur most frequently. Tying all of this together, HSC is also working with Songtaba to draft a strategic document that outlines the organization’s mission-aligned goals for the next five years.
In addition to project planning and implementation, HSC volunteers are helping Songtaba address a digital gap in its advocacy work. Songtaba helps women and girls engage local leaders and youth through public events, demonstrations, participation in local governance structures, and radio programs. However, the powerful stories Songtaba collects in its work go largely unused except for being detailed in some of their official reporting to major donors. HSC volunteers are working with Songtaba to develop a comprehensive communications strategy that raises awareness of gender inequalities in the Northern Region, the stories of those affected by gender-based discrimination, and the work Songtaba does to promote and protect women’s rights.
What sort of people are you looking for to join you in your work?
We are looking for applicants 18 or older who have a passion for learning and relationship-building and who will be available from July 2016 through July 2017. Ideal applicants have travel experience that has required them to adapt to new cultures and environments over an extended period. Applicants need not necessarily be Humanists, but they should have an appreciation for HSC’s unique volunteering philosophy, which means they should be cognizant of the ethical dilemmas present in international service. HSC volunteers must be flexible and possess the self-motivation to work individually alongside the emotional intelligence to function as part of a team.
There is always some danger associated with this kind of travel and work. Certain risk factors are unavoidable, e.g., those related to transportation. However, most risks can be minimized with adequate preparation. HSC volunteer safety rests on the foundation of our strong collaborative relationship with Songtaba and other partners. We have worked with these organizations to prepare pre-service and in-service trainings and orientations that facilitate volunteer understanding of cultural expectations regarding behavior and appearance and to highlight any other safety considerations. Should any emergency occur, the volunteers are covered by travel, medical, and evacuation insurance.
What advice would you give for someone who wants to help but isn’t sure about the year-long commitment?
There may be a point in the future when we are able to plug short-term volunteers into structures built by long-term volunteers, but we are not there yet. Right now, so much of every HSC volunteer’s work is cross-cultural relationship-building that we can’t accept applicants with briefer availability. We regret that this limits our applicant pool and also our ability to provide life-changing volunteering opportunities to more Humanists; nonetheless, our first priority has to be to the work, our partner organization, and the individuals whom we support. So, I guess I’d advise someone unsure about the yearlong commitment to wait until they are certain or until we offer other commitment lengths. Beyond that, I hope that people who recognize the value of HSC but aren’t ready to volunteer for a year will still consider supporting the program in other ways.
How can people apply?
Applicants should email the following to firstname.lastname@example.org [as soon as possible]:
- Cover letter explaining (1) why the applicant is ideal for HSC and (2) why the applicant wishes to join HSC
- Three letters of reference, including at least one from a professional supervisor (preferably more). One letter of reference may be submitted from a project, lab, or thesis supervisor. One letter of reference from a professional colleague is also allowed.
How can people help if they’re unable or uninterested in traveling abroad themselves? Is there a way to support your work without being physically involved ourselves?
We need HSC supporters to take an active role in spreading the word. This is important not just to raise awareness about the gender-based discrimination we are working with Songtaba to address, but also to amplify HSC’s impact as an embodiment of humanist ideals. As an expression of non-theist values, HSC provides an important counter-narrative to the anti-theist rhetoric that is atheism’s primary public face. This expression is important not just for correcting misconceptions religious people have about atheists, but also because the nonreligious need a prominent representation of service-oriented non-theism to draw more nonreligious individuals into responsible service wherever they are. So, we need people to help us make our audience as big as possible.
We also need more people to support HSC financially.
What specifically would it take to keep the program running?
Aside from the advantages I already mentioned above, one of the strengths of HSC’s collaborative approach is that it minimizes costs and maximizes impact. If we can get just 500 people to donate only $10 a month, it will allow us to move forward confidently. We will be able to accept more volunteers. We will have the capacity to expand our efforts to increase access to clean water and healthcare. We will implement the plan we develop with Songtaba this year to address the root causes of the witchcraft accusations — insufficient access to education, healthcare, and jobs. We want to look at expanding to another HSC location within the next four years, but that will only happen if we can get people to invest in HSC as a program that is important not just for the people who volunteer, but for the movement as a whole.
(Image via Facebook)