Gentrification vs. Colonialism's "development", and Discussion Questions 5/1

Gentrification and colonialism's "development" both enlarge the gap between the rich and the poor. Although colonialism was instigated between societies (mercantile policies of nation-states and the resulting exploitation of colonies) instead of within a society as gentrification often is, they both create situations in which the rich getting richer makes it harder for the poorer to get richer. For gentrification, it comes in the form of rising rents and possible displacement as we see in Kreuzberg and Capitol Hill. For colonialism, it comes from exploitation of natural resources and labor with extremes such as the rubber industry in the Congo in the early twentieth century.

The culture of the affected area is changed by both processes. In both situations, people living in an area create an identity for their neighborhood or society, and incoming groups of people change the established community. It is important to note that while colonization often results from a lack of industrialization in the colonies, gentrification has a paradoxical characteristic of being in part caused by the success of the people living in the community. For example, Capitol Hill business owners created a financially successful area in town, and this led to more businesses and people coming to the area and the development of the neighborhood. Thus, even long-time residents may have very different opinions on gentrification. Both gentrification and colonization have different nuances in both their local and national/international components.

As students engaged in international service, we must respect the complexities of the situation we enter into. We won’t have the first-hand knowledge of the situation like those who live in the community, so we should keep our minds open to learn and listen. I think it is most important to communicate that we as Americans do not have anything more special to offer than any other person, and that we are here to learn and do what we can as fellow humans. In reflecting on it, it isn’t something you can easily generalize. It depends the location, the people, where the international service engagement fits into that context, and many more factors that make each interaction unique. But at its core, it’s about expressing an honest effort to make positive change on a human-to-human level. If we take large topics like gentrification and colonization and focus on the personal, local situations within them, we are in a better place to understand the specifics and make interpersonal connections.

How can we break the language barrier, or at least communicate in some way, if we do not share any languages with the refugees? How important is it to try to speak in their native language?
How can we strike a balance between trying to make a positive difference and not being condescending or seeming to think we have all the answers?
What do you see as the major goal of international service engagement?