I Hate Poverty Tourism But I Applied to #StyleForJustice

A few months ago, a post on poverty tourism went viral. For those unfamiliar with the term, poverty tourism or slum tourism is when (typically white, middle to upper class) people from a more developed, wealthy country travel to a less developed country. Sometimes it’s to “serve” in some way, such as (shoddily) building an orphanage like the author of the aforementioned post described. Sometimes it’s just to “see” for one’s own eyes what life is like for most of the world’s population. And sometimes it’s to be “storytellers,” such as on a blogger trip intended to inspire others to sponsor children. 

I've participated in these well-intentioned but horribly misguided "service learning tours" before and I don't want to make the same mistakes again.

For example, on one hot and sticky summer day in Washington, DC, I participated in a well-meaning “service learning tour” around the city, which essentially meant that a bunch of (relatively) wealthy students got on a private, air-conditioned bus and drove around the less palatable neighborhoods. Throughout the trip, the tour guide pointed out the homeless shelters, soup kitchens, halfway houses, and domestic violence agencies. It was like being on a safari, but rather than pointing out exotic animals, we were pointing out “exotic” people and places. After the tour, I and several others wrote scathing responses to the program coordinator about the tour. They didn’t do that tour again.

So last year when I prepared to travel to one of the most developed countries within Africa—Ghana—I was determined to not make the same mistake again. My family and I traveled to Ghana to visit my brother who was studying abroad there for the semester. In the weeks before we departed, I prepared for the inevitable tours—like the harrowing visit to the slave trading castle once owned by the Dutch (hint: Vermeer is a Dutch name). But I also reviewed all of my notes and papers I wrote for my college major: international politics and law with a focus on human rights and international women’s development, which included coursework on all the countries in the world. 

Africa was not one of those countries because Africa isn’t a country at all.

Africa is a continent with over 50 individual countries, of which one is Ghana. Rwanda is another country in Africa, more than 2000 miles from Ghana. It’s unfortunate that it needs to be said at all, but when I hear a barrage of “Going to Africa will be a life-changing experience!” and “I want to be a voice for the voiceless in Africa!” in response to an opportunity to travel to a specific country within Africa, it bears repeating.

I bring this all up because yesterday Noonday Collection and International Justice Mission announced a new partnership.

This partnership will bring 8 storytellers to Rwanda to “spread the word that when we use our purchasing power for good and pursue the cause of justice, hope for the poor is possible.” It sounded like a great opportunity and this blog is all about social justice storytelling, social enterprise, and sustainable fashion! 

SOURCE: Noonday Collection

But then I opened the #StyleForJustice link and saw a photo band of the 7 women storytellers already confirmed for the trip. 

And my heart sank. 

It didn’t sink because there is anything “wrong” with these women. I have never met any of these women and only have heard the names or read the blogs of half of them. But my heart sank because of the abject lack of diversity as I scanned back and forth across the 7 photos. In fact, my first words in response were “Come on, IJM, you know better than this.” 

Two hours of internet research confirmed that the homogeneity among the group is even more pronounced than what you see on the surface. So I created a matrix with 14 variables such as occupation, race, marital status, nonprofit experience, human rights expertise, etc. to show the similarities and differences.100% are white. 100% are mothers. 100% work in primarily at-home pursuits as writers, photographers, designers, etc. 86%  live in the US south (over half in Texas alone). 57%  have adopted children from countries in Africa.

I share some of the same characteristics as these women. I am white. I am middle class. But I am not a mother, nor do I live in the south. I have a full-time job in corporate America. In my free time, I research and build skills in supply chains, sustainable fashion, and conscious consumption. This includes running my own small-scale social enterprise called Reclaimed that upcycles vintage dresses into modern, one-of-a-kind creations.

I still applied to the #StyleForJustice contest hosted by Noonday and IJM. You may be wondering why I would still apply after writing this critique. It’s a valid question, so here are three good reasons why. 

1. I applied because I’m prepared to ask the hard questions about social enterprises. 

I believe that I am uniquely qualified to not only share stories of Noonday and IJM’s partnership, but also analyze and assess its impact given my years of experience working on human trafficking, women’s empowerment, philanthropy, social impact, and the ethical fashion industry. Drawing upon this experience, I’ve already started conducting due diligence and research on Noonday’s profit model and asking critical questions, such as: Why are their products not certified fair trade? How are they determining what a fair and living wage is? Do they pay upfront for the products the artisan co-op produces (like one of my favorite fair trade companies Mata Traders does), or do they pay after the goods are sold? 

2. I applied because I believe in storysharing over storytelling. 

The purpose of the trip is to help tell the stories of women whose lives have been changed through education and economic empowerment. I personally abhor the term “voice for the voiceless” since the marginalized—including these women artisans, some of whom are survivors of trafficking—are not voiceless. They are deemed “voiceless” because they have been silenced, not because they don’t have a voice. Rather, I believe in the power of sharing and amplifying women’s stories of hope and healing. helping them to use their own voices in their own time and in their own words. 

3. I applied because I want to steward my skills in strategy and sustainable fashion, not because I want to go on an exciting international trip. 

I am a strategic thinker and problem-solver. I could have written a short narrative about how I feel “called” to this trip (I do) and include a headshot like many of the other 220+ applications. But I didn’t. I assessed the opportunity and approached it from a different lens, which shifted the question to: “How can I use my skills and talents to challenge the current #StyleForJustice approach and improve it?” Part of that improvement is that I would donate the same amount that it would cost for me to travel to Rwanda to a reputable nonprofit organization, thereby offsetting the critique that it would be more impactful to donate directly to these co-ops than spend thousands of dollars transporting white women to Africa.

If any of these three reasons resonate with you, then please consider voting for me HERE (scroll down the page after clicking). My application, an infographic, is also below!

I welcome any comments or feedback in the comments! And remember to vote HERE!