How the Hawaii Fires Shift Us Toward Centering Local Voices

Teanna Sunberg
3 min readAug 15, 2023


Photo by Jin Lim on Unsplash

As raging wildfires in Maui this week tragically took the lives of 93, displaced thousands, and devastated the historic town of Lahaina, a #Realnewsnobullshit Instagram post about caught my eye. Their 890K followers rely on the grassroots, self-proclaimed unbiased journalism that merits their growing base, yet the Thursday post asked followers whether their journalists should fast track to Maui to cover the unfolding wildfire story. Three hours into the life of that post, they had nearly 5000 likes and hundreds of comments, predominantly voicing a resounding ‘No, don’t go!’ to their question.

The commentors advocated for protecting hotel spaces as emergency housing for displaced residents and local responders. They voiced criticism around promoting voluntourism and advocated for the resourcing and magnification of local news media voices over outside media sources. This seems to be an unsustainable business strategy for a news organization like #realnewsnobullshit, but the ‘don’t go’ from their followers was adamant. Why?

The comments are indicative of a post-colonial shift towards centering local voices and expertise over professionalized agencies. This is an emerging criticism of organizations that fail to prioritize local experience and cultural voice in humanitarian emergencies. It has wide implications for disaster response and humanitarian aid, and it will also impact universities and churches who use experience-learning trips in their programming.

Humanitarian Aid

A Foreign Affairs research article in 2015 by Barnett and Walker (2015) predicted that the “already overextended” humanitarian system would “soon be tested as never before” (p. 130). Later that month, the historic migration of 1.5 million Middle Eastern people into Europe began.

In their article, Regime change for humanitarian aid, Barnett and Walker introduce the idea of emergent and convergent humanitarian response. Emergent humanitarians are local people who become unplanned first responders to rapid-onset emergencies, like the Maui fires or the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey or the response of Poles to the war in Ukraine.

Newer research is showing that local humanitarians are rarely invited into designing projects or monitoring them, but they diagnose their community problems, implement projects, and provide first response (Barnett and Walker, 2015, Van Voorst, 2019). In other words, the power and the voice of local communities is frequently limited or negated by professionalized humanitarian organizations.

Experience-Learning Trips

In the same vein, Anderson, et al. (2021) discuss white savior recreation. For those against critical race theory, this article may feel offensive. The authors call for an awareness of historical and structural barriers that sit at the root of systemic injustice. While the authors are not against experience-learning trips, they do advocate for entering trips with critical reflection, reciprocal learning, and civic responsibility. This requires responsibility and research around how a program can be effective. It also demands that we apply practical and intentional strategies that refrain from contributing to ongoing Othering narratives.

Local Voices

Thursday’s #realnewsnobullshit post emphasizes the emerging pressure on humanitarian NGOs, INGOs, national and international media organizations to take a posture of learning. They face increasing criticism if they fail to adjust toward strategies that center, resource, and empower local people as experts in their own local communities.

Faith communities and universities who plan ministry and/or experience-learning trips should take note and adjust their strategies. This is a welcome correction to the sometimes-destructive, sometimes-colonial approaches of the past.

Anderson, et al. (2021) say that the agency of communities who have traditionally been Othered should be acknowledged, and they advocate for centering those voices. To name and recognize the privilege that undergirds mission, learning trips, and humanitarian response is important. Postures towards historic systemic injustice that are characterized by humility, listening, and learning are first steps toward a healthier and more constructive engagement.


Anderson, K. R., Knee, E., & Mowatt, R. (2021). Leisure and the “White-Savior Industrial Complex.” Journal of Leisure Research, 52(5), 531–550.

Barnett, M., & Walker, P. (2015). Regime Change for Humanitarian Aid: How to Make Relief More Accountable. Foreign Affairs, 94(4), 130–141. JSTOR.

Van Voorst, R. (2019). Praxis and paradigms of local and expatriate workers in ‘Aidland.’ Third World Quarterly, 40(12), 2111–2128.



Teanna Sunberg

Balkan & Central European culture specialist. Culture Crossings: Where culture, justice and church intersect. Missiologist.