Vacations are a necessary breath in the Yale grind. Between midterms, symphony rehearsals, housing canvasses and sports practices, students need a break. Next week, I look forward to sitting on a beach and doing, well, nothing.
I am going with my suitemates to Puerto Rico, a sunny island with not so sunny problems. A recent article in the New York Times compared Puerto Rico’s financial troubles to those found in Detroit. Only 41.3 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans have jobs. The government has incurred a $70 billion debt and the population is leaving at a greater rate than that of any state in the union. Despite the end of the 2008 recession, Puerto Rico continues to show little recovery. The market has done little to curb unemployment and many companies are leaving Puerto Rico to seek more dependable business in the United States.
I know I’m not the only Yale student packing my bag and heading to Puerto Rico — some will vacation in countries facing even worse financial problems. But not all students are heading out with a vacationer’s guilt. Students who participate in programs like Slifka’s Alternative Spring Break or Reach Out will build houses or wells. The average spring breaker won’t.
But service trips should not be viewed as the perfect alternative to a typical spring break. While they have worthy intentions, they often create more the illusion of empowerment than any lasting change. They contribute to the belief that progress can happen overnight, when such change requires years of commitment, not a two-week trip of Ivy League do-gooders. The true merit of these programs is their potential to make a student aware of the misery found in communities near and far.
A friend of mine suggested that I should vacation at a different place to avoid a confrontation with my conscience. By visiting Puerto Rico, I am implicitly supporting the exploitative institutions that created the country’s economic troubles. I will spend money enriching the powerbrokers and lawmakers who refuse to create taxes, social programs or businesses that employ low-income Puerto Ricans. Tourist money merely strengthens their political and economic power.
But avoiding Puerto Rico — or any other exploitative community, including those in New Haven — fails to provide a decent solution too. Like the service trips, boycotting economically depressed areas provides only the illusion of impact. Not shopping at Walmart makes me feel better, but without collective action, my purchase of a Goodwill flannel will have little effect on wages and working conditions.
The fight against economic injustice requires a longer and more deliberate effort than either service trips or personal boycotts can provide. But that doesn’t need to be an effort that consumes someone’s entire life, changing all one’s daily routines. In my dream world, I would love nothing more than for all Yale students to become full-time activists. But that pie-in-the-sky dream will never exist. As a senior, I know that most graduating Yale students will pursue careers in consulting, finance and information technology.
Thankfully, one doesn’t need to be an activist to fight economic injustice — anyone can weave socially conscious practices into their daily lives. My mom reminds me that you need good people in all jobs, including bankers on Wall Street. Otherwise, the system will continue to take advantage of people excluded from power; we need people in all jobs to enforce basic fairness. Bankers can avoid risky lending practices that sink the entire economy. Consultants can make recommendations that boost employment opportunities. Computer scientists can create programs that improve nonprofit organizations and government programs.
We all participate in systems that exploit, sometimes without even realizing it — we tour economically troubled countries, we shop at stores with unfair labor practices and we attend college in a city fraught with inequities. But we can’t combat guilt with short-term solutions, like service trips. We need to make a devotion to fairness a part of everything we do, a lasting state of mind.
Next week, when I go to Puerto Rico, I won’t be doing service with Reach Out. But I will be talking to locals, learning about their backgrounds and taking their stories as an impetus to fight economic injustice.
As some of us filter out of New Haven this week and return at the end of March, I hope we remember what we are going to encounter. I hope we bring back those snapshots from abroad — not to make us feel guilty, but simply to make us aware. We don’t need to go far from New Haven to find want, either. I hope that no matter where we go, or even if we stay on campus, we return from spring break committed anew to basic decency.
Will Kronick is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .