This July marks a decade since I led my first group abroad. Armed with conversational Japanese and a sense of adventure, I donned a headdress made from cardstock and Popsicle sticks, adorned with the enlarged passport photos of 13 teenage strangers from across the U.S. We met in the Los Angeles International Airport. I was nervous, but obnoxiously cheerful and they were properly mortified to see their pictures crowning my afro. We spent the next month exploring Hokkaido together as a part of The Experiment in International Living.
This week I’m leading a pre-departure orientation for the inaugural voyage of my own experiment, Many Voices One Tribe. I find myself reminiscing about the best and worst moments from the eight trips I’ve led to date. I have taken more than 200 young people abroad and been a witness to everything from homesickness meltdowns to shy kids break dancing, the creation of a sport named sumo jousting and the epic battle of stomachs at the all you can eat cake buffet (Cake Tabehodai!).
I was with young people for their first plane rides, their first time seeing the ocean, and their first time communicating in a foreign language. We celebrated small victories like successfully ordering a meal at a restaurant and learning the steps to a traditional dance for a parade, and big victories like planting 500 trees and building a school.
Every day was an adventure, an opportunity to navigate a new culture and a foreign way of doing things. The connections those youth made with one another, with their homestay families and all the people they met along the way fundamentally shifted who they are. These excursions changed me, too.
In 1932, Dr. Donald Watts founded the Experiment in International Living to create a space of cultural immersion for the purpose of fostering peace. For many young people of color, “cultural immersion” — stepping out of their comfort zones to interact with people from different walks of life —is just everyday life, especially for those of living in predominantly white communities.
But youth of color also benefit from building community abroad. We are at a time when it is vital for those youth to have these incredible experiences of foreign cultures, and also to observe their own culture from a distance.
I see the need for travel from my own experience of U.S. culture as a black woman, which has often hurt me—especially lately.
It has been difficult to move through my grief over the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. The terrorist attack on a the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston and the subsequent burning of six black churches shattered what was left of my heart. Despite living in the liberal bubble of Seattle, every time I turn on the news I feel like I’m surrounded by fellow Americans so committed to hating the color of my skin that they could murder me on sight.
This continuous violence, injustice, and assault to our humanity has driven black people to leave the U.S. for centuries. From Marcus Garvey to Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), many notable artists and activists of color chose to become expats when America became too much to bear.
As much as I’ve considered it, I don’t think I could live abroad forever, mostly because my family is here. But the time I have spent abroad—whether for weeks or for years—has been a healing breath of fresh air. There is something about being a foreigner in a foreign land that gives me permission to be vulnerable again, to allow others to welcome me into their lives, to make connections with people without the burden of shared history.
Lately, home feels like a minefield where even conversations with well-intentioned allies leave me feeling emotionally depleted. I’m not saying travel is all sunshine and unicorns. I’ve faced discrimination abroad too, but it doesn’t compare to what I’ve felt here because this is my home. The travel experiences that have most impacted me have been the incredible kindness of strangers: the family in Chile who took me in when I was about to be homeless and the Spaniards who sat vigil with me when my best friend died, even though they never met her.
Last year I started on a journey to launch a study abroad program for young writers of color. I named it Many Voices One Tribe to describe what I would like to co-create, which is an opportunity for youth to cultivate their voices as writers, to explore their identities, and to get to know themselves as a part of this one tribe called humanity. I had lofty goals, pretty ideas, and a clear understanding that it would take a lot of work to make it into a reality. I also knew that there would be those who wouldn’t understand my vision and who might see it as being exclusionary.
Like Watts and the many international educators that have come before me, I too dream of cultivating peace through understanding. The peace I’m searching for is a reminder that there is good in the world, that there are people who don’t speak my language who would welcome me into their home and extend a hand of friendship. This is what I want all youth to experience, but especially the kids who might not get what they need to feel fully human here at home.
I want the youth to be able to rest, to gain some perspective and to begin to define themselves not by the limited views of our country, but by the infinite possibilities of what the world has to offer. In the words of Albert Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And if you haven’t noticed there is a problem.
It is vital that we step outside of the society that created our social identities. I am not advocating for the utopian cultural erasure that many liberal white people think will solve racism … when we all just “stop” seeing color. I don’t want to be invisible. I don’t want to be silenced. I don’t want to be disrespected, dehumanized or killed. I want to be who I am without having to live in fear. I want to create space to make the human connections that will restore us to the understanding that we can all be different and still find common ground.
Study abroad is not the cure to everything, but it’s a start. As we continue in our pre-departure orientation, I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time.
On July 13, Many Voices One Tribe will take its first trip to Veracruz, Mexico. We will blog about our experience on our blog . We are still collecting donations to cover the cost of our excursions. These youth will climb the pyramids, to dance in the Zocalo, and to stand in the shadow of the statue of Yanga while learning about the first free town in the Americas. We are still accepting donations through GoFundMe; please give as you are able.