Missions in the Mountains: A Critical Development Perspective on Mission Trips and Volunteerism in Appalachia

Every summer, vanloads of teenagers from privileged suburban communities descend upon the Appalachian mountains for week-long volunteer “mission” or “service learning” trips. These students generally perform a small-scale construction task—for instance, painting a house or installing a wheelchair ramp—while spending evenings participating in team building exercises and learning about Appalachian history and culture. However, while such programs are framed as community service programs, the students themselves rather than the communities they are ostensibly “helping” appear to be the ones who benefit. If we can theorize Appalachia as an “internal colony” with respect to the broader United States (Lewis et al. 1978), then perhaps the rich tradition of anthropological work looking at development projects in colonies and former colonies around the world (e.g., Ferguson 1994, Mosse 2005, Li 2007) can provide a provocative lens through which to view volunteerism in Appalachia. The desire to improve the lives of others does not mean that lives will actually become meaningfully better. On the contrary, volunteer programs may have pernicious unintended consequences that inhibit the goal of economic and community development in the region. This paper is not meant simply to offer a condemnation of a common practice by which non-Appalachians experience Appalachia. The enthusiasm and the desire to do good on the part of young people is something to be nurtured and encouraged. Instead, I hope to offer an invitation to reconsider the possibilities for what volunteerism can be, and how it can meaningfully contribute to a positive future for Appalachia.

Works Cited:

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Lewis, Helen, Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins. 1978. Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Boone, NC: The Appalachian Consortium Press

Li, Tania. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press

Mosse, David. 2005. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. London: Pluto Press