One of the presentations I attended at the AGA Annual Conference in Boston was on Service Learning, presented by Willy Oppenheim of Omprakash. His reputation as a powerhouse presenter, a passionate humanitarian and an adventurer extraordinaire preceded him. I was not disappointed.
I walked away from his presentation inspired and grateful that someone was standing up to say the hard things and encourage the community towards a higher standard across the board. Service learning is a sticky subject in the Gap Year world and there are plentiful examples of failures in the field doing more harm than good. It was encouraging to see so many of the organizations in the AGA community present at the table to discuss the potential for growth for the good of volunteers, organizations, and the world.
I came away from that session wanting to know more, about Willy, about Omprakash, and about his zeal for service learning, so I scheduled an interview for a May afternoon and we had a chat.
1. Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got here.
Primarily, I identify as an educator, holistically. The Latin root of educate is to Lead Out, and educator works with others in leading out, broadening and expansion. The work that I do through Omprakash, and as an outdoor educator as well, leading expeditions for young people from a variety of backgrounds for a few weeks to a month in the mountains is focused on expansion and education. If I’d been born a hundred years ago, maybe I would have been a minister, instead I’m an educator.
I grew up in Maine with four sisters, in a loving family, surrounded by lots of nature, fishing and hiking with my Dad, which lead me to where I am now. I live in Seattle and have a desk job but also easy access to the mountains and glaciers of the west coast.
I hated school, at the time, because it didn’t feel relevant to the world. Of course as I grew that binary thinking has collapsed and I no longer see schooling as separate from the world. In sixth grade I resolved to not go straight to college but, instead, to take some time off. In high school I became interested in volunteering in India. Naive idealism and romanticism built into that but my intuitions were correct: the best way to experience another place and to learn is not to be part of a group trip, but to just go and immerse and live there and be challenged.
I was not interested in highly chaperoned expensive group trip, but there weren’t a lot of resources for independently minded young people. So, I emailed this school directly, with no middle man, and asked for a teaching job, and got it. That experience was transformative for me and became the catalyst for creating Omprakash later. It shouldn’t be that hard to connect with local, grass roots projects.
2. Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?
Because it was so transformative for me. Interrupting the conveyor belt is really helpful for everyone. It allows young people to develop parts of their identity that they don’t have to confront when they are on the conveyor belt. Formal education provides you a very very easy framework for self validation, you can get through and manage not know anything about who you are or what you want or where you are going; as long as you get good grades you’re okay.
People go their whole lives and don’t ask these questions, and then one day they find they’re forty five before they ask “What am I doing with my life?” Any disruption to that path is helpful. A trip. A summer job doing blue collar work (as a white collar kid). We have to get young people out of a context where success is defined by extrinsic measures that are provided for you. The value of a gap year on a social, emotional spiritual level is that it removes the extrinsic measures and motivators and forces you to ask the bigger questions.
3. Omprakash takes a very unique approach to “placement” and to volunteering abroad.Can you talk a little bit about this, why you do things differently and the benefits to both organizations and students?
Omprakash is named after a person, an elderly man in a hospice center in North India; I met him in 2004 while volunteering there. He inspired me because the conditions he lived in were, from my perspective, pretty depressing.
One day he said to me: “I wake up every day and I feel like I’m in paradise because the people here take such good care of me.”
This was a light bulb moment for me because I had suspicions about the paradigm of help=giving stuff away, and this approach as I was observing it didn’t sit well with me, but couldn’t articulate an alternative. Without meaning to, this man showed me that relationships and bringing people together is transformational… relationships are what matters.
The dominant model is volunteering on Gap Years is placements, which means there is a middle man, or organization, arranging a relationship between person and the volunteer organization, for a fee. I believe that that model is disempowering to the individuals and the organizations being served. It short circuits dialog between them, and the middle man has a disincentive to allow dialog.
Why is it disempowering?
Because it’s not too much to ask for an 18 year old to actually apply for a position. They should have to apply for these jobs, to prove their worth and demonstrate their value to the organizations. Additionally, it’s disempowering to organizations seeking volunteers because they should be able to choose someone who is useful and meets a need they actually have, and they should make those determinations, not the middle man.
4. Raising the ethical bar for service learning is something you’re passionate about.
Can you talk a bit about what you see across the industry and how improvements might be made?
Remove the Middle Man
We should be promoting direct contact between people and organizations that are locally led who are posting real positions that they need filling. Connecting with real people on the ground and facilitating real dialog. That’s what Ompraskash does.
Better Preparation & Curriculum
We should be doing a better job of preparing people to be in the field, including serious requirements for Pre Departure, In the Field, and Post Experience reflective learning and curriculum. I worry about the forms of knowledge production implicit in placement model. There is no deliberate pedagogical attempt to produce other forms of knowledge acquisition.
Every student shows up with baggage… colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism. If a provider is not deliberately working with that baggage to create a different understanding and they don’t have a clear curriculum, or pedagogical model, they are perpetuating those damaging narratives without addressing the deeper issues of global inequality and that is unethical.
5. What is the biggest challenge your organization faces and how are you solving it?
The biggest challenge we face is that all of these things I’ve critiqued are so embedded that many people don’t see them as a problem at all. That’s not a unique burden, but in particular, focusing on education piece, there are dozens of people out there selling short term trips with no pre departure curriculum and no need to be critical thinkers. It’s just a matter of signing up to go help poor children for two weeks. This is a model we are trying to deconstruct and that’s a big challenge.
In comparison to that we are questioning a volunteer’s motives, requiring up front work, and personal investment. It’s a better way to approach service, but it’s difficult from a marketing perspective.
6. Tell me a success story: a life changed as a result of Omprakash.
Ian Pounds is a guy who’s 50 years old or so.
Through Omprakash he went to work in Afghanistan in 2006 was there six months, subsequently he went back several times. Now lives and works at a university in Bangladesh. He worked for a long time with the organization in Afghanistan raising thousands of dollars for a school in Kabul through taking kids on a speaking tour of USA
Michelle Kincaid, is a current freshman after her Gap Year.
Everything else was too expensive for her, she did a Gap Year through Omprakash. Her host partner in Peru said she was one of the best volunteers they ever had and that EDGE had helped prepare her. Her overall success was due to being immersed in a local organization for six months in Lima. Part of the reason she was able to have that immersive experience was proper pre departure curriculum. She really liked a lot of the content in the curriculum, so much so that she asked if she could use that to facilitate discussion on the ground in Peru with locals about the role of volunteers on the ground.
Uttam Teron, who lives in Assam NE India.
He started a school, with 16$ and a handful of students. Today he has 5-600 kids he attributes the growth to Omprakash. He was able o put the school on the map through Omprakash and the series of volunteers who came helped him with fundraising. Omprakash certainly isn’t responsible, solely, for the growth of the school, but it’s a privileged to have helped!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
At Omprakash, we are a social enterprise. We are not a charity, and we are not looking for handouts. We have a product we sell. I believe the customer is not always right, he’s almost always wrong because of the embedded fallacies.
I do think it’s worth questioning the market forces that are at play in the production of the Gap Year experience. Ethics are tied to the bottom line not as a guiding principles.
A big part of my message to the AGA members and affiliates is that consortiums like AGA can support each other to grow the pie bigger. But another perspective and important function is to hold each other accountable towards a set of standards and principles that are separate from the market, the bottom line and what people want; otherwise all we will be doing is perpetuating the status quo. I’m not that interested doing that. At the end of the day, having good intentions doesn’t mean a whole lot. There should be a higher level of accountability.