Los Angeles, Ice Teas and Angelina Jolie

It’s interesting how much attention volunteerism has gotten in the past few months. In a recent article published by CNN, Eva Vasquez asks if “celebs like [Angelina] Jolie inspire voluntourism?” She further explains the implications of the term “voluntourism,” which for those of you who have been following the project, it might bring memories of an article published about two months ago called “The Role of Profit Not For Profit.” Same concept. The difference however, regards how the topic was approached. Whereas one chose to focus on the social and personal implications of volunteerism, the other used the influence of celebrities to explore the subject matter. Not a matter of right or wrong per se, but rather a contrast of perspectives. Ultimately, Vasquez’ opening question does echo significant considerations.

We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture. People like Angelina Jolie certainly bring attention to relevant matters and causes; yet, it also glamorizes the subject matter. Sorry to break the news but there is nothing glamorous about volunteer work; or starving children, or extreme poverty. Even the term “voluntourism” glamorizes volunteerism (it just sounds so bubbly and fun). If glamorization is what it takes for people to volunteer themselves then there must be something off. Change comes from within. The same will that guides one towards the meaningful choices represents the lack of. In other words, if you care about starving children and extreme poverty for the wrong reasons, then you would be better off following the trails of Lindsay Lohan.

Why the sudden focus on celebrities? I am in Los Angeles – entertainment capital of the world. It’s interesting, to say the least, how I have traveled all around the world and only in Los Angeles I still feel conscious about myself. From the way people present themselves, to blunt conversation topics and heavy telephone interaction: the self-centered universe for self-centered individuals. Unlike any other city on Earth, you barely see individuals walking on the streets, people outside their houses or human fervor. This is the epitome of our current trend “I can only care so much about you.” It bugs me. No, it worries me.

One very broad generalization regarding Los Angeles’ culture; I know. There are several good people around just like any other major city. To be honest though, I don’t think people are even aware of how local culture and expectations affect their behavior. If you choose to remain within the “right” neighborhoods, then luxurious cars, epic houses, beautiful women, neatly dressed men are part of your daily reality; there is only so much to care about besides your mirrorlike image. True, quality of life hardly compares to other places on Earth; but the idea of knowing different realities almost makes any individual a complete weirdo. Few people want to know (or care) about starvation. My Starbucks non-sweetened passion flavored lemon ice tea just tastes better!

I always like to read the comments section right below the articles; you get an idea of whom the readers are. Some more opinionated than others, responses vary from mild concurrence to raging disagreement. One of those in between provided a link to another article, written by Kenya-born, Kennedy Odede. In his article he discusses how foreigners would visit and tour around his native Nairobi slum, eventually learning nothing from the experience.  He says, “slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.” This is precisely how I currently feel in Los Angeles.

In response to Vasquez’ earlier question, I will also position myself along the fence. None of the volunteers I interviewed or worked with ever declared Jolie to be an inspiration. The true matter here is how this information is being communicated. It’s a matter of caring more about Jolie’s actions than the real issues and causes. Seeing and caring have different meanings; for those who truly want to see, caring is enough.

Links:

http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/08/10/celebrity.humanitarian.travel/index.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/opinion/10odede.html?_r=1&ref=opinion