The Power of Alternative Breaks

The Alternative Breaks Program (AB) within the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement aims to help students become more aware of the social problems that occur outside of the UT Austin community.  This year, the coordinators of the Alternative Breaks Program decided to bring their team of seven students to the very south of Texas, specifically in the cities of Edinburg, McAllen, Hidalgo and San Juan. The purpose of the trip was to explore the complicated history of immigration policy and the refugee crisis. Bianca Vazquez, a sophomore majoring in Psychology with a focus in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies, participated in this year’s AB trip in South Texas and stated that “when helping others, it is important to not hold a savior complex and assume that those who live differently than us require some sort of aid. AB does a good job of making sure that the activism work we do is centered on what has been asked of us rather than what we assume is needed from us.”

The trip took place from March 10 to March 17 (Spring Break) and consisted of participants working with a local nonprofit organization, Proyecto Azteca. Proyecto Azteca serves the community by working with individuals who live in poverty and cannot afford a home that has electricity or running water. Proyecto Azteca helps these people build their own homes and essentially teaches them the value and necessity of personal responsibility and home ownership. The students who participated in this year’s trip painted a home, cleaned and organized a garage full of wood, and picked up trash.  AB participants also volunteered at a local refugee center and were assigned to either translate for the refugees, help provide clothes for them, cook meals and, most importantly, to talk with the refugees to “restore their dignity.” Participants also had the opportunity to take a border tour, where they visited the Rio Grande River, as well as sites of walls and other landscapes between Texas and Mexico.

AB’s core principles include learning, active citizenship, service, simplicity, and community. AB students practice these principles throughout the trip by communicating with participants after every activity, no matter how emotionally or physically draining their day was. “The differences in the type of labor aren’t to be taken lightly. It was very important for us to take some space to rest and talk about the work that we had done to help us recuperate for the next day,” Vazquez said.

AB believes in the principle of active citizenship, which means serving in a community with purpose. This principle also emphasizes the vulnerability that comes with learning, yet also not knowing all of the answers. AB promotes service learning trips that make individuals step out of their comfort zone but still gives students the opportunity to be “challenged by choice.” “I met a variety of people on the trip outside of my AB group, and the knowledge they shared was just as valuable as anything I learned in a classroom at UT. Being in dialogue with your communities, and being respectful towards communities you are in solidarity with, is a definite doorway to learning more about others and about yourself,” Vazquez says.

Although the dates of the trip are during spring break, the work starts long before the students travel to their destination. Once a student is selected, they attend pre-break sessions where they are trained for on-site experiences and are provided basic education about site-specific social issues. The actual on-break transformation encourages participants to look critically at the root causes of these social issues and challenges them to evaluate the role that they can play in the community. Lastly, there is a post-break transformation where participants find avenues for continued community involvement and are encouraged to take the next action.

Overall, AB is a great opportunity for rising activists to be able to network and educate themselves on how economics and social issues are interconnected. “Asking questions is a very important step for all activists, but it is also important to be conscious of the challenges marginalized and oppressed communities constantly face. Once you feel like you’re ready to be in a constant state of learning and unlearning, join a movement you are passionate about, and before you know it, you’ll be an activist, Vazquez says. “I liked AB’s focus on only helping those who ask for help, and not those who we assume need our help. Don’t wait for your own community or communities in the media to do it for you.”

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