May 26, 2021
(Dervla is: first row, top right)
I joined the Board of VSI in late 2020, continuing an involvement with the organisation that began in the 1990s. When I left college, I had the privilege of participating in several environmental activism projects with other volunteers from around Europe. I met people from Turkey, who were travelling outside their country for the first time. There were volunteers from Serbia who had first-hand experience of living through the Yugoslav wars. There was an Austrian nurse who’d cycled from Vienna to Rome: he’d been stopped by border guards as he travelled through Slovenia, on suspicion that he was trafficking guns in the small leather suitcase that held all his belongings on the back of his bicycle. It was a whole new world for me.
The demographic profile in Ireland was beginning to change and become more diverse around this time. My experiences with VSI had made prompted me to start thinking more deeply about global justice issues, and I began a Masters in Development Studies in UCD. At the same time, I organised a VSI volunteer programme in Ireland, linking people from around Europe with families seeking international protection and families experiencing homelessness. It was an invaluable introduction to the joys and the difficulties of hosting a diverse group of international volunteers.
My interest in international volunteering continued alongside my work in social research and community development. In the early 2000s, I took a career break to spend six months as a volunteer in a university in Uzbekistan. On my return, I began to work with Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Development Workers and Volunteers. This involved looking at some of the ethical issues around international volunteering. Was it complicit in reinforcing stereotypes about the Global South? How did the concept of going abroad to “do good” frame people’s experiences right from the start? How did the power imbalances that shaped much of international development play out in international volunteering? Along with VSI and many other volunteer sending organisations, Comhlámh developed a Code of Good Practice that has shaped practice in the sector and encouraged volunteers to approach placements from place of critical thinking and reflexive engagement.
I subsequently worked for number of years with an INGO, coordinating the research and evaluation programme for work they funded across Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 2013, I returned to Comhlámh and have since had the pleasure of working on partnerships with VSI’s sister organisations across Europe. All SCI branches share a commitment to peace, reconciliation and intercultural learning, things I believe are increasingly important in our interdependent world.
Climate breakdown, people dying at the borders of the EU, unequal access to vaccines at a time of global pandemic: all show how thinking about and creating other ways of being in the world are becoming more and more urgent. VSI provides important and unique opportunities for people to get involved with collective movements for change, and to experience first-hand how their concerns are shared by people from many different countries and cultures. I’m particularly drawn to the ways in which inclusion is at the core of all the organisation’s work. And I have very strong memories of the amazing people I’ve met over the years through VSI and the enormous fun and laughter we’ve shared. It’s an honour to be part of a board that’s working to continue this tradition.