Though I’d been to Canada, I didn’t actually board a plane and travel abroad until I was in high school. My first trip was to London, England, to play with my high school band in the New Year’s Day parade. I followed that up with a three-week trip to Australia via a leadership program for high schoolers. With that, my love for international travel was a done deal.
I think introducing international travel to students when they are in middle and high school is incredibly important. The world is much bigger than our own backyard, and when students have the opportunity to learn about other people, places and cultures, their perspectives regarding what is important and what is real may change, often for the better.
This came to mind when I learned about Daraja, an international high school leadership program that caps enrollment at well under a dozen students. Daraja’s first trip is this year, when students will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, for 16 days to partake in skill-building classes, social entrepreneurship and service learning development. I’m intrigued by the potential of Daraja, so I dropped Chris Breitenberg, the brainchild behind the organization, a few questions about what he hopes Daraja will accomplish and his own travel dreams as well.
1. Tell us about Daraja. Why do you believe programs like this one are important?
Daraja is the work of my heart. When I was 16, I took a trip to Mexico that changed my life forever. I met people who lived in a state of material suffering but who had spiritual joy. And I really saw myself, living with material wealth but in a state of spiritual suffering. The contrast was so stark. I had never been so far out of my own context before (growing up in central Jersey) that I had never had any perspective on life, the word, my own thoughts/feelings/actions.
I believe that we all need to have a better grasp of who we are and the world we live in. Trips like Daraja are intended to tighten that grasp by challenging preconceptions, raising awareness and giving room to process feelings, ideas and experiences in a healthy way. My hope is that once we have a better a understanding of ourselves and our world, then we can begin to act more intentionally in the world; we become less reactionary and more purposeful. Daraja’s focus on service and social entrepreneurship encouarages students to be purposeful in the pursuit of their passions, in supporting the marginalized, building healthy relationships and finding solutions to the difficult challenges our world faces today.
The primary activity is going to be in partnership with a fantastic group in Oaxaca called SiKanda. They are social innovators and have great vision for what can really lift the marginalized of Oaxaca City. They engage in projects ranging from building eco-friendly homes to starting up composting businesses. Our activities with them are really two-fold. First, to offer our hands and serve their mission and the people of Oaxaca however we can. Second, to come alongside them and learn from these incredible changemakers through conversation and interaction over time. Unfortunately, it is rare to find people of true passion who are giving in service to society. It’s a precious opportunity to be with people like co-founders Jose Carlos and Aurelia and their team. If nothing else, I want the students to have a chance to catch the spirit of this passion and understand that it’s possible to live life in pursuit of a passion and not just in pursuit of comfort and security.
3. How do you hope these students will apply what they’ve learned once they’ve returned home?
This is experience is about life-learning. While we’ll be involved in building houses and speaking Spanish, the point of the course is not to develop these technical skills. My real hope is that the course will effect each participant’s worldview and attitude and that this will permeate all aspects of their lives—from the way they listen to each other to their willingness to move out of comfort zones, from an openness to new cultures and experiences to a clearer idea of how to apply their values through their actions.
In the end, I hope that students will also want to be change makers. We’ll have had an experience of being with people who took a hard look at their society and decided that they wanted to live out Gandhi’s message of ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ One best possible application? A student goes home, takes a look at a relationship/community/world and asks, “What needs to change?” Then they take a look at their own life, see what they can do about it and go for it.
4. How can people get involved in supporting Daraja?
A few ways. At the moment, we are truly in a start up phase and need exposure to teenagers, families, teachers and administrators who believe in the importance of international experiences and social entrepreneurship for high school students. Legitimately, if this idea excites you at all—call me! If there is anything I’m learning about life these days, its the importance of meeting up with people that share your passion and seeing where it goes. Call me, email me, get on on our facebook page and let’s talk! We are so new that your idea may very well be the most important one that I hear all year. Let’s make it happen together!
In April, I’ll go to Spain for the first time. When I set my feet down in Barcelona, I’ll have had the great privilege to travel to my 30th country. When I reflect on that, I’m still amazed at just how fortunate I am!
What’s been most special to me is that I’ve been able to do most of that travel alongside locals who are dedicated to creating positive social change in their communities and countries. This has led me on some amazing adventures—like playing music for Cambodian border guards instead of paying a bribe, and working with recently arrived North Korean refugees on the outskirts of Seoul—where I’ve been able to explore incredible lands, cultures, foods and more. But more importantly, it’s been a chance to explore the deep recesses of my heart and see what is actually there and what I truly care about in life.
When you travel far outside of your comfort zone you are gifted these little treasures—like little snapshots—that impact you forever. I think about drinking a cup of tea on top of the Himalayas and saying prayers with the novice monks at the Ganges River. Or meeting a wandering pilgrim turned social pioneer in Taipei or a quadriplegic in recovery at restoration house for untouchables in Maharashtra. The joy on family faces after they built a new home or making noodles in Cambodia at my friend’s family shop. It’s impossible to describe the impact these moments have had on my life and philosophy of living. And yet, they are so profound and simple and beautiful and deep.
6. What is on your bucket list?
Good question! Three things come to mind. First, I’ve been dreaming about hiking The Narrows of Zion National Park with my brother since we were 10 and 12. Nearly 20 years! That must happen sometime. Second, I want to see Oliver Mtukudzi play a show in Zimbabwe. He’s one of my favorite songwriters and to see him play for Zimbabweans in his home country would be incredible. Lastly, I want to go to the World Cup … one of these days! And for now, I’m just trying to learn how to catch a wave and ride it in to shore. That would be a huge accomplishment!
All photos courtesy of Chris Breitenberg.