Critical thinking: A roadto__ empathy

Volontourism: a critical perspective on voluntary services

by Gabriella Restrepo B. 

I am Gabriella a Transcultural Studies student at Heidelberg University. I took part in a seminar that focuses on post-migration urban contexts with a particular interest in the city of Heidelberg. Within this context and to try to understand how the city shapes its inhabitants, but also how the people and their own personal experiences can influence the city, our seminar partnered with the roadto_ festival and its three main themes: Social Future and unfolding; Stories of many and Do-It-Yourself-Together.

In a time where cities seem to be copied and pasted from a model of a Global/ Cosmopolitan ideal, with creative people leading the parade of… “creativity” towards the goal of economic growth, and where abstract knowledge has been commodified and used as a catalyst for that growth (Knowledge economy), a call for community projects, developed by the community is sorely needed. The roadto festival was – in my opinion – a valid effort to fight against an unconscious cosmopolitanism in which not everyone’s voice is included in the decision making of city planning.

According to the United Nations, 55% of the world’s population lives today in urban areas and by 2050 that figure will increase to 68% [1]. Migration is a key factor in the non stop urban demographic growth. Not only scholars, politicians, artists, etc., but also we – day to day citizens [2] – are trying to figure out (with different tools and approaches) how migration as mobility and movement, as a travel from one vision to another; from one cultural background to another and from one moment in time to another has and still shapes our cities.

“If we think about it more thoroughly, the act of moving is part of who we are; we move every single day in-between spaces (from our inner space to the public space for example) and we engage with the public space constantly which means we are going to encounter with others who are doing the exact same thing.”

In this setting of encounters and conciliations, the roadto_ was a fruitful attempt. The world needs more initiatives that bring people together both in big cities and small ones like Heidelberg. Initiatives with social goals —rather than economical—that try to improve the community in tangible and intangible ways might help create another world, a better world built on the idea of transcending —not forgetting— old ideas. Jeffrey Hou wrote (in an essay about the “Night Market” in Seattle) that an event which engages individuals in close encounters “… has the potential for transcending stereotypes, and provides opportunities for interactions, border crossing, and a more nuanced understanding of culture diversity and complexity.”

This atmosphere of reconciliation and joy did not mean the roadto_ Festival was pure leisure and had no room for critical thinking. On the contrary, the workshops offered during the festival allowed the participants to think more deeply about topics involving solidarity and democratic coexistence, space and place, public spheres, climate change, binary gender roles, the arrival city, city planning, city mapping, cooperation and collaboration, volunteer work, empowerment, empathy, and active listening.

The workshop about volunteerism caught my attention. A few years ago I came across a satiric video challenging the perception of volunteer work in Africa [3]. It was eye-opening because even though I come from a country of the Global South, I had never stopped to reflect on what the other half of the volunteering process — the aid-receiving communities — actually think of people (who usually come from the US and Europe) trying to “save” them.

Workshop: Voluntourism- eine kritische perspektive auf freiwilligendienstE

The workshop “Voluntourism – Eine kritische Perspektive auf Freiwilligendienste” took place at “Do-It-Yourself-Together” festival at the Raumfnger at the Adenauer Square in Heidelberg on the 5th of July.

The goal

The main goal was to look at volunteer services from the perspective of the global South. Some points discussed during the workshop were related to the question of why do Europeans want to travel to the Global South to do volunteer work? Why do Europeans feel people in Africa and South America need help? And why are they portrayed in such a way?

The Organizers

The workshop was organized by the Kritisches weiß-Sein Heidelberg group. A group of young people who meets every two weeks to exchange information, recommend resources of activists of color, and to support anti-racist work [4].
They have realized they are white. It might sound obvious but —as they explained— when you are white you might not even be aware of the fact that white is also a color and it entails a privilege within a racist society. The group is well aware of the problematic position they are in when talking about racism (for e.g when white peoples’ processes of reflection are made the top priority) but as Melanie Bee wrote in her article “Critical Whiteness” they want to be allies on this fight: “learning and listening to people of color [5], reflecting on our own racial privilege, and taking action in ways that are accountable to communities of color. Reflecting on one’s privileges (all of them, interdependently, not just racial privilege) is a crucial step in anti-racist praxis” but as she continues it’s just one step.

The speaker

Sylvia Holzhäuer was born and raised in Kenya. She has been in Germany for many years, has a family here, and has been dealing with intercultural understanding, exploitation and racism for most of her adult life. She is black and with a serious tone she took us on a journey of uncomfortable, but necessary questions and personal experiences. In Germany it is not uncommon that young people go for a year to do voluntary services like teaching kids or building houses in the Global South, however, how many of them are qualified to do so? Sylvia insistently asked. 

Another topic stressed by her was the dehumanization process that people of color go through when they are called immigrants or refugees because, as she points out, they are more than what these labels can frame; they are humans and “they have names,… so why don’t we call people by their names instead of using labels that are so negatively charged?” 

The reception

The topic was not easy and there were many silences throughout the session, but somehow listening to a woman who has experienced racism in many stages of her life gave us perspective and a sense understanding to build a stronger connection to others who have suffered discrimination in ways that we could not imagine instead of going to save Africa.


  • [1] The 2018 Revision of the World Urbanization Prospects was published by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).
  • [2] The term citizen might be problematic, but I decided to use it in order to maintain the etymological association with the city.
  • [3] The video was created by Radi-Aid, an annual awareness campaign created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance Fund (SAIH). If you want to see more of their projects you can go to their webpage.
  • [4] The group is currently going through some conceptual changes on how they want to keep reflecting on racism so their goals may vary soon.
  • [5] Link to the article.