Two St. Louis Educators Facilitate Transformative Trips Abroad for Students

In a twist of irony, two local history and social-studies teachers at St. LouisGrand Center Arts Academy—Ben Dinwiddie and Evan Smith—have taken wordsmith Mark Twain’s signature piece of advice to heart: “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Together they created the Global Ethos travel program, in which they guide a small group of students on service-centered trips around the world.

In its third year, destinations have included Hawaii and Nicaragua, with Puerto Rico in the pipeline as a future destination as well. In preparation for each trip, Smith and Dinwiddie work with students to fundraise, learn about the region’s history and engage with the culture of each place, challenging the “white-savior complex” that permeates many a service trip abroad. They’ve seen students face some of their greatest fears, forge cross-cultural connections and witness even the toughest kids break down in tears of gratitude after a trip.

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How did you two come together to create this program—and why travel, specifically?
Evan: When we were younger, both Ben and I had opportunities to get out of our respective bubbles here in Missouri, which was really transformative for both of us. For me, I went to Mexico with a high-school Spanish class where we stayed with families, and then the kids from those families came and stayed with us in St. Louis. I got hooked on how travel can open your eyes, and how you can learn about people who live in a completely different world. We can get a little myopic and narrow in our day-to-day life at home. Adolescence is also such a formative time. They have so much going on, and they’re ultimately worried about fitting in, which makes them almost obsessed with the minutiae of life. We wanted to give students the opportunity to engage with a bigger picture.

Ben: I saw the project as a way to help the kids become better students and well-rounded people. When we travel, we see ourselves in the larger context. The students come back more motivated and engaged. There’s also a lot of preparation and fundraising beforehand, where the students get to see how supported they really are. Local businesses on Cherokee Street, in The Grove and beyond have supported the project, and we teach the students how to engage with them to advocate for themselves. They’re really impressed by the giving spirit of the St. Louis community, and they’re able to look at their own community through a new lens.

We want them to build love, dare I say, for other cultures and communities. And that has happened: The kids who have gone through our program have made connections abroad that they still maintain.

I understand you touch on some difficult topics with students: issues of race, culture differences, environmental justice and more. As teachers, how do you address these challenging subjects?
Evan: At Grand Center Arts Academy, our student body is incredibly diverse. We have white kids from the county, kids who live in projects, immigrants, a vibrant LGBTQ community and more. The election of Donald Trump was particularly troubling for many of our students, which resulted in things like immigrant and Muslim students feeling unwelcome and targeted. In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a study about what they call “The Trump Effect,” about students of color feeling unsafe through the normalization of rhetoric that most of us thought was in our country’s past.

But the thing about being a teacher is that we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t have to. No one hired me to teach history because I know everything about history. It’s a subject that’s contentious, debated and alive. The past is now. We don’t have to process these difficult topics for the students or teach them how to think. We’ve had so many moments of social upheaval in St. Louis, with so much at stake—which shows us that while the school is one institution of learning, we’re really learning all the time. We want our students to be curators of their own lives, and you don’t need teachers to be around all the time for that to happen.

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How are trips through Global Ethos different than other service-minded types of travel for young people?
Ben: Much of our goal has to do with challenging the concept of education as this pre-packaged thing where you check all the boxes you need, get the credits you need to graduate and then that’s it. Our third trip will be on the north shores of Oahu in Hawaii for seven days, which will mostly take place out of the common tourist areas. They’ll be learning about environmental justice and agricultural capitalism through taro restoration—the farming of a nutrient-dense root vegetable. They’ll be pulling weeds from taro fields. We also have a partnership with a Hawaiian university, where the kids will see U.S. Department of Defense installations, Marine Corps bases and Pearl Harbor.

We show them things that are really off the beaten path, like the military presence on Hawaii that’s largely invisible without this kind of access, and its cost to native Hawaiians. It raises a lot of different questions we discuss about sovereignty, land rights and the consequences of U.S. Imperialism.

Evan: Right. And many Hawaiians consider themselves a nation within a nation, which is very eye-opening for students. Native Hawaiians’ relationship to their land, food and needing to get it elsewhere has also been ruptured, which has led to an intense decline in their health. Which is why their agricultural work with taro is so important. And we’re not going to change Hawaiian health outcomes by doing a week’s worth of taro restoration. But students will be grounded through agricultural work and honoring a certain ethos of what it means to be a guest somewhere.

Ben: We’ll also be hiking, exploring, preparing our own meals, talking about wellness. On the island, it’s a nice little microcosm of the natural world—there’s a movement of localism. And we show our gratitude, but the students take away so much more than what they bring.

What is it like to travel with a big group of teenagers, and how do you see them change?
Ben: It is very, very fun. It’s exhausting. But so fun.

Evan: Agreed. And the kids all cry at the end when we have to leave. Even the tough-as-nails kids; you’ll find them weeping at the end out of gratitude and having been humbled, not sadness. It creates a different level of relationships, because we’ve learned and struggled together. That struggle can look different for everyone. For some kids it can be hiking all the way up to the top of a mountain, being away from home or without internet access. During a debrief from one of the trips, a young woman shared that she never thought she’d be OK without makeup, and she did it. She was allowed to just be herself, and the world didn’t crumble.

Ben: You see the kids reconnect with who they really are. At home, they have the facade of an American teenager to cultivate. But we get to see them drop all of that in order to learn, explore and meet new people. It’s an amazing thing to see.

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All images courtesy of Global Ethos.

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