Humane Education and Travel: An Interview with Vincie Ho

POSTED ON MAY 20, 2021 | BY ZOE WEIL

Vincie Ho, Ph.D.

Zoe: What are some of your life experiences that have led you to your dedication to social justice, environmental ethics, and animal protection?

Vincie: Looking back at my college years, I was quite ignorant as a young adult. I excelled in school but knew nothing about the world. My caring personality had me believe that kindness is the solution to all problems and conflicts, but what I didn’t know back then was that to be a truly kind and empathetic person, we need to understand what’s going on in our own community and other parts of the world; to think critically in order to identify the root and systemic causes of problems; and to have the courage to stand with victims of oppressive systems. I still remember vividly my “aha moment” when I saw the Rwandan genocide unfold on TV in 1994. The contrast between my life in a bubble and those hundreds of thousands of Tutsis being killed was striking. Since then, I have become more curious about current affairs, politics, and social justice.

At the same time I fell in love with traveling, reading, and watching documentaries. I traveled to places to learn about different cultures and to unlearn the stereotypes that I had about them. In 2011, I had the chance to volunteer for a month in Kigali, Rwanda, and I was fascinated by the lush greenery and the cheerfulness of the people, which was quite different from the images of Rwanda the media had shown me. During my stay in Rwanda, I came to understand that societies move forward from conflict through accountability, which is the first step to healing and reconciliation. That was when I finally understood what the slogan ‘no justice, no peace’ really means.

To me, if we care about social justice, it’s impossible not to care about the environment and non-human animals as well. These issues are so interconnected that it makes no sense to me to advocate for one cause and not others. If we care about the environment, we should also be thinking about the communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change. If we care about the suffering of animals used in tourism, such as elephants, we should care about the dire working conditions of the people whose livelihood depends on animal tourism activities, too. If we care about dolphins, why don’t we also care about fishes and other sea animals? So naturally, my calling to social justice also guided me into advocating for environmental ethics and animal protection, two areas in which I have had a growing interest in recent years.

Zoe: There are many ways to be a humane educator, and through RISE you are demonstrating a very powerful way to educate people about issues related to justice, sustainability, and animal protection. What made you decide to use travel as a vehicle for humane education?

Vincie: Most people like to travel if they have the means and the time. Travel can be rewarding in so many ways: it can be therapeutic for our souls; it can foster understanding across cultures and break down cultural barriers; it creates opportunities for us to appreciate the wonders of nature and wildlife that we so often overlook around us. However, more often than not, the focus is on how travel experiences benefit us as the travelers, rather than the communities and the ecosystems of the places we travel to. That’s understandable. Most people consider travel their well-earned vacation time and don’t pause to think about the negative impacts of their travel on others.

It’s not that tourists mean to cause harm; they’re simply unaware of how mass tourism and unsustainable tourism practices can negatively impact the people, economies, animals, and ecosystems of tourism destinations around the world. I, too, was also guilty of unintentional missteps during my earlier travels, but thanks to an occasion where I was introduced to the concept of sustainable travel, I became more aware of the impact of my travel decisions and began to travel with more intentionality and more mindfulness. A few years ago, I decided that I would share those learning moments with people around me and inspire them to reflect upon their impacts. Yet, I never found a platform to do that until the 2018 summer residency at IHE [a week-long humane education immersion course offered to IHE graduate students and others]. That summer, I was inspired by 3 guiding questions for a solutionary project, and those questions were: What do I love to do? What am I good at doing? What is the problem I want to solve?

I had spent years trying to figure out what I really wanted to focus on in my career, then it took my esteemed teachers Zoe Weil and Mary Pat Champeau two minutes to help me join all the dots! I love to travel; I’m a seasoned educator; and the tourism industry is causing more harm than good especially to countries where poverty levels are high. That was how the idea of a sustainable education curriculum all started. Fast forward to 2020 when I founded RISE Travel Institute in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. This actually turned out to be a great time to create and plan, so that when we got to the point where we could safely travel again, people could be better prepared to do so ethically and sustainably.

Travel is a privilege, and those of us who are fortunate enough to travel have the responsibility to leverage our privilege to empower communities around the world that are less privileged than us. Sustainable travel education is essential to help tourists put privilege to good use. At RISE, we believe that we can never truly achieve sustainability if we don’t address the underlying oppressive systems that perpetuate global inequity by upholding the privilege of some and continuing to oppress others. I like to think of sustainable travel education as humane education in the context of travel, and my hope is to introduce the concept of humane education to sectors beyond the traditional education system.

Zoe: How do RISE programs work? How do they help educate people to be solutionaries?

Vincie: RISE Travel Institute has two inaugural programs: our online educational curriculum and our Experiential Journeys. The primary goal of both programs is to provide travelers with the knowledge and the tools to learn to travel in a way that benefits the local communities and ecosystems of their travel destinations. And by ‘travel destinations,’ we’re not only talking about places far away, but also any places that are ‘foreign’ to us. That might be a neighborhood in our own city. We want to help our students see and experience the world in a different way; cultivate empathy for people across divides and differences; create space for difficult but important conversations about privilege, power, and all the “isms;” and inspire our students to think critically about their relationship with other people, animals, and the planet.

In June 2021, we’ll be launching our first program, a 10-week long Pilot Program (Certificate in Sustainability and Anti-Oppression in Travel). This program is designed around two key concepts or principles: systems thinking and anti-oppression. The program will begin with demystifying the definition of ‘sustainable travel’ using a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking is a holistic way of understanding how all constituent parts of a system interrelate, and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. Our first module will address the current power dynamics within the global tourism industry in relation to the history of travel and colonialism. We will also discuss the interconnections between animal protection, conservation efforts, and community development. We also use the systems thinking approach to evaluate the ethics of our travel decisions. We explore how even simple decisions about what souvenir to buy (or not buy), or which hotel to stay in, has implications not just for the relationship between the commodity/service and ourselves, but also for all those who are involved in the entire supply chain. The systems thinking approach empowers us to see the fuller picture around our choices; identify systemic causes of problems; and come up with sustainable solutions to tackle those problems.

The second key concept is anti-oppression. We apply an anti-oppression lens to everything we do at RISE and all the topics that we teach about. In the Pilot Program, we will examine how oppressive systems in the travel space interact and impact different intersections of identity. We’ll also be covering decolonizing Indigenous tourism; moving from voluntourism to service-learning and community-based tourism; and understanding climate justice.

Through our programs, we want to build a tourism industry that is inclusive for everyone; where travelers and locals can both benefit from tourism; where no people are denied access to travel experiences based on ability/disability, sexual identity, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.; and where no animals or local environments or resources are exploited. RISE’s vision is a world where travel is a force for positive transformation for both travelers and travel destinations. To achieve this goal, we need to raise awareness and actively seek to support sustainable and inclusive practices in the travel space and beyond.

Our Pilot Program graduates are eligible to apply to join our future Experiential Journeys when it is safe to travel again. Our Experiential Journeys provide participants with the opportunity to practice making mindful travel decisions that do the most good and the least harm for all and get involved with community development projects and other social justice/sustainability initiatives.

RISE is proud to have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee that works closely with all other RISE committees to infuse DEI strategies in every vein of our organization, from program operations to volunteer recruitment. To ensure accessibility to our educational programs, we offer tuition grants and travel scholarships to university students with demonstrated financial needs. We also strive to seek ways to diversify our team and student demographics and to produce social content that elevates voices from traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups.

Zoe: People are eager to travel again, but as we know the pandemic is surging in many countries. How is RISE balancing its travel focus with the reality of COVID-19?

Vincie: International travel was brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic for more than a year. As borders are reopening, and vaccines are becoming more readily available in wealthier countries, people are desperate to travel again. Yet, there are a few things we need to consider before we make any travel plans. First, the pandemic situation varies from country to country and is rapidly changing. Cases are currently surging in many countries, and mutant strains are causing increasing concern, especially in countries with poor public health infrastructure. Second, according to The Lancet, “scarcity in supply coupled with the large volumes of pre-orders made by richer countries creates challenges to achieving timely, universal access. Billions of individuals around the world might not have access to COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, which could prolong the pandemic and raise the risk of further mutations of the virus emerging, possibly undermining the efficacy of existing vaccines.” Third, while vaccines are proving to be remarkably effective with very few side effects, they do not guarantee immunity. Even if we’re fully vaccinated, there’s still a chance we may get sick if exposed to the virus, require hospitalization, and be a carrier and spread the virus to vulnerable populations, further placing strains on local healthcare systems.

RISE Travel Institute does not encourage people to travel. We educate people about their responsibilities as travelers and empower them to make informed decisions with regard to their future travel plans, and such decisions may involve holding off on taking a non-essential trip. We inspire sustainable travel behaviors so that travel destinations will not only survive the pandemic but regenerate and thrive in the post-Covid era.

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