Powerful People: Karina Saunders, Popular Education, and Service Trips

Karina Saunders
Karina Saunders

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities. Karina is my co-worker in The Pilgrimage, the principle outreach ministry at Church of the Pilgrims, that focuses on the experience of the hungry, homeless, and working poor. The Pilgrimage welcome mostly college and youth groups to engage in service learning and popular education to envision a world made new.  This is part 1 in a 2 part post. 

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – William Butler Yeats

 Changing the Narrative of a Service Trip PART ONE

One of the best parts of my job is creating frameworks for students to see bigger contexts that shatter stereotypes and build bigger stories. As the program manager at a service-learning center in DC, I develop schedules and programming for groups that come to learn about the gap between the rich and the poor.

Through service, learning, and reflection, I hope to engage groups in questions about poverty, charity, and justice.  The hope being that by the end of their time here, they will have more tools to create change in their home communities.

 However, in reality, most groups come to “do service” often missing the context and background to why there is a need for service in the first place. During my time here I’ve become increasingly aware of the misconceptions groups carry with them about poverty in the city and in their own home communities.

They often come hoping to be shocked by the disparity that exists only in the nation’s capital. They want to give food to “them” at a soup kitchen, and then cross off their volunteer hours or social obligation of community service for the year.

DC Central Kitchen
DC Central Kitchen

 Often in a closing reflection I would hear wonderful stories that broke barriers, and reminded participants that people living on the street were really no different than themselves.  They could share the story of Jeff, outside CVS who taught them the importance of acknowledging the human dignity of people. Or they would boast in the number of lunches or meals they prepared at DC Central Kitchen. The trouble comes when I ask what they will do with their new revelations, the “now what?” question. The group would be silent. Breaking stereotypes of homelessness is important work.

Cutting vegetables, serving a meal, helping someone apply for a job, donating clothes to an employment training program—These are all important pieces to ending poverty. But, the story is bigger. If I want a group to be affective agents of changing the reality of poverty, they need to be familiar with the differences between charity work and justice work. They need to understand a glimpse of the challenges affecting those living in the poverty.

I believe we can’t just do service work and we can’t just do justice work, we need to do both. We need to meet the immediate needs of people, but we also need to create structures that prevent poverty. And so, to respond to the need for groups to zoom out a little, and see the bigger story of poverty in this country we started the Tina Jones Project. Meeting a person’s immediate needs for one week out of the year---is great, but what needs to happen is a shift in the narrative.