“Catalytic donors don’t treat individual community members as charity recipients. They instead view individuals as potent participants in the process of solving problems – for themselves” -Crutchfield, Kania and Kramer, “Do More Than Good”
This quote struck me today as I reflected on the past two days of my alternative Spring Break trip with a group of undergraduate students from the University of Maryland. For seven days we will work in food banks, community gardens, homeless shelters, and nonprofit organizations providing social services to homeless individuals who suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues. Since we’ve been here, we’ve heard numerous times how great it is that a group of students would “sacrifice” their spring break to “do good.” A feeling of falsehood and embarrassment has been gnawing at me throughout my time here because of the embedded privilege and hierarchy our service creates between us and the people we “serve”.
To think that we should be commended for giving back when we have been privileged to have so much seems antithetical to what service means to me. For me, service is an act of humility and the fulfillment of a duty to your community. To think that acting communally and collectively is a sacrifice, especially as visitors in a predominately African American city, is laughable in light of the legacy in the black community of creating opportunities for the disadvantaged to gain access to opportunities that have historically been denied to them. My ancestors (nor the people I see in my home community who give back in their churches and other organizations) did not define what they did as service, nor did they spend time patting themselves on the back for doing what was needed. That belief that they were doing what needed to be done with no regard for pomp or circumstance eliminated any artificial divisions between volunteer and recipient.
I swallowed the bitter taste of paternalism each time we told our community partners what we were here for. It seemed almost audacious to come into a community that we did not belong to or even fully understand and believe that we could (or should) make an impact that deserved applause. It seemed to somehow undercut the agency and power within these communities to think that a group of young people from hundreds of miles away could save a community. I doubt any of my participants felt that they were saving the world and I’m sure they know that our planting, organizing and feeding will not solve the problems of hunger or homelessness in Atlanta. But I do believe many have come in with beliefs that our time, energy and good intentions mean that we can’t be a part of the problem.
Yet, who are we to come in smelling of college textbooks and ivory tower ideas, patting ourselves on the back for “helping” others? Does our unacknowledged naivete make us any less culpable for diverting attention away from community solutions and the will and ability of community members to create change? Do our good intentions hide the smugness with which we swooped in with our theoretically-based solutions to problems we assume we know how to define for communities we’ve assumed agree with and buy-in to our interventions? I had proudly clung to the fact that we purposely chose to sleep on the floor of a local church and lived on a food budget of seven dollars a day – but was this not also a flex of our privilege? What made us anything more than minstrel show performers trying on the lives of families in need, only to cast them away after we had served our term and collected our congratulations. Who are we to play the part of people we have seldom met and reflect on lives we have never lived?
In a larger sense, this experience made me reflect on all the ways that I and others like me (college-educated, millennials) try to “do good” in communities. Unfortunately, there is an unspoken belief that the communities we “serve” are nothing more than voids to be filled. How often do we as servant leaders, change makers, and grant givers ask communities what THEY see as the solution to the social problems that plague their communities? Moreover, how often do we provide spaces for them to define the scope of the problem(s)they struggle with? How often do we dare to cross the invisible lines of race, class, and geography that separate “givers” from “recipients”? When is the last time we saw the poor, disabled, or otherwise marginalized populations we interact with as sources of knowledge to be tapped into and engaged with as partners, rather than case studies to be analyzed and problems to be fixed? How do our mainstream definitions of and collective beliefs about philanthropy and civic engagement reinforce the traditional ways of viewing and engaging with communities? Where do we go from here?