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Reinventing volunteering using the power of travel: backpack with a purpose!

Operation Groundswell, where the road is your classroom and volunteering is made transparent and ethical

Operation Groundswell started as a group of friends; their goal was to travel the world while contributing positively through volunteering. What initially would seem an “ethical sector”, it didn’t take much until the co-founders realised about the negative side of many organisations and businesses offering the volunteering experience. In fact, many communities have suffered from organisations “willing to help” where it was assumed “what their real needs are”, instead of collaborating and understanding the local challenges. These guys are reinventing volunteering and sustainable travelling with programs that will make you contribute the most realistic way possible. Ready for an adventure that will change your life?

We interview Justine Abigail Yu, Marketing & Communications Director, and Anna Cunningham, Marketing & Communications Assistant. They are part of the team of backpackers with a purpose at Operation Groundswell. Since they started, they have run over 250 programs in 18 countries with nearly 3000 alumni. They are using travelling as the most powerful tool to get a more holistic and human perspective of the intricate realities on the ground.

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Justine Abigail Yu, Marketing & Communications Director Operation Groundswell

If you are ready for getting out of your comfort zone and come back of what would be the trip of your life with more questions than answers, then this is for you! We hope you feel as inspired as we did!

What is Operation Groundswell’s mission?

Operation Groundswell’s vision is to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world through the power of travel.

How did you find out that backpackers would like to travel with a purpose?

Because we are those very people! Operation Groundswell started as a group of friends with well-worn backpacks who wanted to travel in a more meaningful way: to find a more nuanced perspective of the world while making an impact along the way.

Our co-founders Jonah Brotman and David Berkal were looking for exactly that kind of opportunity 11 years ago and found that there were already many businesses and organisations offering volunteer travel experiences. But when they did a bit more research, they found that volunteering abroad can often do more harm than good. Many of these businesses and organisations don’t actually consult or work in collaboration with the communities they are claiming to help, which poses a lot of ethical issues and long-term consequences.

That’s why Operation Groundswell was founded – to develop an ethical and responsible approach to international volunteering and travel. Over the years, we’ve built programs that don’t just plop a volunteer into a project. Instead, we combine community service with an educational program that teaches team members the context needed to understand local challenges before learning how local organisations are solving them.

It all started as one pilot program in West Africa with a small group of friends and since then, we’ve grown to run over 250 programs in 18 countries with nearly 3000 alumni.

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell
We’ve built programs that combine community service with an educational program that teaches team members the context needed to understand local challenges before learning how local organisations are solving them @OGbackpackers… Click To Tweet

How can we change the world through travel?

Operation Groundswell has always believed in the power of travel to open up an individual’s perspective and deepen cross-cultural connections and understanding. The open road is our classroom and backpacking across cities, countries, and regions has been the best way we’ve found to immerse ourselves fully in the places we go. Travelling in this way gives us the opportunity to connect with people, places, and ideas we might not otherwise get a chance to if we were back home or even on a tour bus or resort.

At Operation Groundswell, we take local transportation, squishing in overcrowded matatus or hopping on the back of a piki piki. We get a taste of the local cuisine by eating at local restaurants, street vendors, or even in the homes of our friends and partners. We live with homestay families, chipping in with daily chores while listening to their stories. By doing these things, we are better able to challenge our assumptions and come face-to-face with our world’s interconnected system.

We actually go even a step further in our travels by meeting with government officials, NGOs, businesses, artists, farmers, activists, educators, you name it—to get a more holistic and human perspective of the intricate realities on the ground. Alongside this, we facilitate discussions and workshops that tackle questions around power and oppression, solidarity, and cultural literacy.

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell

Our aim here is to connect the personal stories we come across to the greater systems at play in our world. Our travels are an educational experience that challenges participants to think critically about the issues they bear witness to on their trip and how they actually connect to their lives back home. Understanding this connection between what happens abroad and how we live our lives back at home is where change really begins.

Our travels are an educational experience that challenges participants to think critically about the issues they witness on their trip and how they actually connect to their lives back home. This is where change really begins… Click To Tweet

Where are these programs taking place?

This year we are running programs in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, India, Thailand, and Cambodia!

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell

In a nutshell, how would you define the complexity of some of the countries you go to on program?

That’s a lot to ask! I really wouldn’t feel comfortable distilling in a nutshell all the complexities, challenges, and opportunities that any of the countries we go to faces. At Operation Groundswell, we look for nuance to better understand in depth the very different issues each country faces. And honestly, even within the same country, these issues may look different from one community to another, from an urban setting to a rural setting, between men and women, amongst the rich and the poor.

We meet with a whole host of different local partners to listen to their various, sometimes even contradictory viewpoints. It’s a way for us to flex our critical thinking muscles and really dig deep into these pressing issues. There is never just “one” story and we want to listen to as many diverse perspectives as possible to widen our own capacity to understand and empathise.

We meet with a whole host of different local partners to listen to their various, sometimes even contradictory viewpoints. It’s a way for us to flex our critical thinking muscles and really dig deep into these pressing issues.… Click To Tweet

What does one of your adventures look like?

Let me show, instead of telling! We made these videos to give a better glimpse at what our programs all about and how we approach our travels.

First and foremost, you’ll push yourself outside of your comfort zone as you hit the road to explore all the stunning gems the world has to offer. We design thoughtful itineraries for every day that you’re travelling with us to maximise your time abroad.

But beyond the inherent magic of exploring a new place, we also intentionally design each program to facilitate a learning experience. The world is simply the greatest classroom and we know that we learn best by doing.   

And of course, as we already discussed, we volunteer. We meet with and work alongside local partners, using service as a learning tool to better connect with each other and the cause at hand. A project has a significantly higher impact if it is undertaken in collaboration with the community. Not as a handout, not as charity – but in solidarity.

You can also dig deeper into this on our “What to Expect” page where we break it all down for you!

What are the outcomes someone could expect if they decided to sign up for this adventure?

I’ve been on an Operation Groundswell program myself and have connected with so many of our alumni over the last 6 years. It sounds so cliché but honestly, it can truly be a life-changing experience.

You come home with a more nuanced perspective of the world, a better understanding of yourself and what you’re capable of when pushed outside of your comfort zone, and well – you’ll often come home with more questions than answers. But that’s the point. You take those questions and hopefully, you come home even more mobilised and energised to push for change within your own community and beyond.

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell

Across all regions, what are some of the themes and issues your participants can expect to be exposed to?

We unpack a number of social justice issues and each of our programs are intentionally designed to examine the unique challenges and opportunities that that specific country or region faces. But in general, we tackle issues around environmental justice, food security, human rights, health and wellness, and access to quality education. Underpinning each program is a look at systems of power and oppression and how they affect all of us in various ways.

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell

Let’s dig into the ways Operation Groundswell gives back: who are the communities, organisations, or charities you work closely with?

After over a decade of running programs, we have worked in partnership with so many communities and organisations all across the world! Rather than just “giving back”, which can often perpetuate harmful stereotypes and cycles of dependency, we work collaboratively with each of our partners to determine what our relationship looks like. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is listen and learn! We connect with these groups and individuals in countless ways, whether through trusted members of the Operation Groundswell family or time spent in the local community.

Is there any particular story you’d like to share that reflects Operation Groundswell’s mission or purpose?

One of our favourite stories that really exemplifies the power of our programming and what it can catalyse is Kelly Hadfield’s.

In 2009, Kelly joined our first medical program in West Africa. The program was designed to examine the response of development organisations to the real health care needs of Ghanaians on the ground. It was then that Kelly witnessed the consequences that result from the lack of open communication between international NGOs and local institutions in developing countries.

Appalled by the deteriorating state of healthcare, Kelly decided to take action. A year later, Ghana Medical Help was founded as an acute solution to alleviate the significant basic medical equipment needs in the most northern regions of Ghana. By 2013, Kelly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical equipment, effectively changing the lives of over two million Ghanaians.

We have so many examples of our alumni coming home from their experiences feeling energised to get involved in different ways. At Operation Groundswell, we understand that we are just a small part of a deeply interconnected system and our work in effecting change isn’t done the minute we hop on that flight home. If anything, the real work is just about to begin! We recognise that the real potential of volunteer travel lies not just in the work we do abroad, but largely in how we continue to live our lives back home.

At @OGbackpackers, we understand that we are just a small part of a deeply interconnected system & our work in effecting change isn’t done the minute we hop on that flight home. If anything, the real work is just about to begin!… Click To Tweet

Finally, what are the steps for someone who wants to sign up right away?

You should definitely start by checking out our website at operationgroundswell.com and doing a bit of research on the places we travel to and themes we explore. Once you’ve found a program that most closely resonates with your interests and passions, just hit “Apply”!

Applications for our winter, spring, and summer 2019 programs are now open and we’re encouraging young leaders everywhere to join this movement towards ethical and responsible international volunteering!

sustainable volunteering travel operation groundswell backpack purpose
Photo Credit: Operation Groundswell

Are you very interested in sustainable travel? Check out this app, Ecocompanion the platform for your next eco trip!

Oh hey! And we have a gift for you: if you’d like to go plastic-free easily here is an ebook with 80 tips download here for free!

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