“The ability to travel not only opens your mind in inexplicable ways but also fosters a deep appreciation for diverse cultures and the people inhabiting our world. For those yearning to embrace ultimate peace and enlightenment, the first step is acquiring a passport.” – Tahja, a beGirl.world Global Scholars alumna
Tahja, now 24, joined beGirl.world in 2014, when she was 15. She was among the inaugural class in Philadelphia, which was formed to tackle the racial disparity in travel. I co-founded the organization with Marcella Hudson after we bonded over our love of travel.
Our discussions about the fabulous places we visited, meals we ate and deals we found on our adventures turned into deep frustration around representation and access in travel for all. We combed the internet looking for others who were active in this space. The results were grim, and we found only a few – like Tracy Riley of the Passport Party Project – who were providing passports, encouraging cross-culture education and exposing Black girls to unchartered territory.
At beGirl.world, we approach our work holistically and consider the various elements that will help us raise girls who travel. We incorporate applying for passports, language classes, local trips, and safety, but also the not so cut-and-dry stuff like being homesick, feeling different in a new place, being confident that they deserve to be there, managing the fear of trying something new and the guilt one may feel knowing that others around them do not have the chance to travel.
We need to do more
Like many organizations who take on these responsibilities, we know that we do good, necessary and impactful work that changes lives, but ultimately – it’s just not enough.
In addition to Black girls (and students in general) missing out on amazing experiences by gatekeeping passport and travel access, the world is missing out on the talent, creativity and intelligence of a generation and population that is shaping our world. Why isn’t this a priority to fix, in an age when weekly headlines remind us how the US is failing at producing talent for the ever-changing global economy? Why are we still continuing to preselect and rank who is worthy of contributing to that change?
“Only 56% of Americans have passports and only 34% of African Americans have passports. It is important for us to create possibilities,” says Hudson.
The truth is this: organizations like beGirl.world Global Scholars aren’t solely responsible for fixing inequity issues. The structural foundation of travel, like many other factors of our society, is built on the systemic failures that thrive from racism and classism.
Just last week I learned of a Black high school student who was going on an international trip to Spain with her junior class (when did they even start doing that?). The parent mentioned casually how they wished their kid could go, but since the family couldn’t afford the $6000 fee required by the school, the student couldn’t attend the trip. That’s $6000 American dollars – in this economy.
Both parents work and make a decent living, but also have other children and living expenses that have only risen along with inflation. Undoubtedly, they couldn’t afford for their kid to go on the trip. Among everything else – especially the anticipation of a college tuition – travel, they decided, wasn’t a priority. Hard to hear, but absolutely understandable.
People were quick to respond that they could easily do a fundraiser, as most kids do. But, that’s an ignorant presumption. It assumes everyone has people in their lives to ask for money, that people have extra funds to give against competing life responsibilities, and that there isn’t an ounce of shame in asking for money – and that’s even before considering the fundraiser might come up short.
And this is just high school. For some, the crushing cost of travel leaves an impression from a young age that it’s not affordable – so what’s the point of dreaming about it? There are, of course, exceptions to the above, yet exploring the world should not be out of reach or limited to those with means or those who grew up in spaces that fostered the benefits of studying abroad.
Here are some more startling statistics: from 2020–21, 4.1% of US students who studied abroad identified as Black, 12.3% identified as Hispanic/Latino and .4% identified as American Indian/Alaska Native. The number for Black students has actually decreased from 2019, when it was 6.4%.
The system for how we approach diversity, equity and inclusion in travel is broken. It isn’t just getting these underrepresented students passports or increasing “representation” in images, ads or magazines. It isn’t just featuring the top Black restaurants in a city, or adding a #BlackLivesMatter or #StopAsianHate to social-media posts. It isn’t just starting an internship for Black students or even providing scholarships.
It is not just asking Black travelers for their (free!) “input” on your new DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) initiative, and it certainly isn’t expecting people to be endlessly grateful for these efforts.
Am I saying these things are useless, no point in trying, performative? Absolutely not – that can only be determined together with other factors. But they are ineffective if there is no action, no follow-through, no changing of power dynamics and, most certainly, no way to sustain and build off these efforts so that the power no longer lives with the privileged few in this space.
They will not work if those who sit in the executive and decision-making seats in places like the government, academia, travel brands and sectors like airlines, hotels, automobile and tourism do not change. This takes effort and work. The kind that is self-reflective, humbling and revolutionary.
“Not only are you able to explore new places by traveling, but you also discover so many things about yourself. Every trip I’ve ever taken has been such a learning experience for me, and I think it’s vital that everyone gets the chance to experience that. This all begins with passport equity and granting people of low-income the opportunity to explore this beautiful world we live in.” – Ryann, beGirl.world Global Scholars alumna
What you can do to be the change
Whew! This all seems overwhelming when it’s spelled out, doesn’t it? Almost impossible even. You may be asking yourself what can you do in the space of travel and passport equity.
Ask yourself how can you contribute, even in your own small way. Not all of us have the power to create massive change – but one by one, collective actions can. Ask yourself how you can utilize your platform or privilege to expose others to travel.
- Can you help sponsor passports?
- Can you volunteer to take passport photos for teens in your neighborhood?
- Can you help create career opportunities for those who study abroad in your field?
- Are you working in the travel space? Can you create a position on your board for a young person, a poor person, a Black person, a disabled person that can give input as an equal member – not a token, but an equal?
- Can you teach others how to make money from travel?
There is always something you can do. And if you need help, I’m here!
Recently, beGirl.world Global Scholars partnered with Lonely Planet to provide 100 passports to Black girls in collaboration with on-the-ground local partners like Destination Liberation (Selma, AL), Horton’s Kids (Washington, DC) and Unlimited Potential (Baltimore, MD). It was a fun-filled day with creators, influencers and Lonely Planet staff focused on passport equity and using everything in our ability and power to fulfill our commitment to a future that reflects and includes us all.
We danced, tasted international foods, applied for passports (some parents applied, too!), had dynamic conversations, played games and girls left with candy from other countries and some Lonely Planet books, including a travel quiz and journal to keep developing their minds to manifest other worlds beyond their own.
It is our hope that these girls and many others who aren’t immediately afforded the privilege of travel will be the catalysts to a future that is rich and plentiful with opportunities for exploration. It’s on all of us to do what we need to do with what we have to see this through.
All of us.