Fighting Poverty with Passion
Somebody asked me why I chose to become a VISTA. After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized that I did not know. I never planned on being a VISTA. Two college degrees, professional experience, glowing recommendations and I could not find a job. So I took the one that was offered to me and moved across the country. That is the reason I became a VISTA, personal growth through connections, networks, and resources to those who successfully survive their 12 month commitment to Volunteer In Service To America. The perks were pretty good too… housing, medical allowance, student loan forgiveness, education award, work experience, and exploring a new, warm place. Poverty was a means to an end for me, and in some ways it still is, because I know that I can always go home to a warm, dry bed, a safe place, a full fridge, transportation, a safety net, and my white privilege to carry me through whatever ‘poor’ financial state I am in. Regardless of my current circumstances I always have options.
Lately I have taken a step back from my own reality and have started to really think about the impact I am having on my community and if the work that I do, and the mission of my organization fit within the greater needs, physically and emotionally, of the direct community I serve. Going down the rabbit hole, I began to ponder the possibility of my desire to ignite positive change in my community and if I was actually helping, or appeasing my own “white savior complex”? How can I help a community when the community is not being represented? When I sit in a meeting and every person at the table has a warm home, fresh clothing, food, water, a daily allowance for lunch at Whole Foods, and a smart phone (myself included) the irony does not elude me. Where are the people? The flesh and blood who live, work, play, love, and struggle? Where are the people who know?
Identifying, admitting, and understanding that not only do I have white privilege, but that I am also surrounded by and actively participating in the ‘White Savior Complex’ revolution, was almost as bad as finding out that Santa’s helpers were my parents.
According to Urban Dictionary, a “White Savior refers to western people going to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs”.
The illusion of my reality was popped. No matter what I told myself, or how much I tried to justify, the fundamental, bottom line remained the same. The idealism, efforts, and time I have dedicated to service is an illusion. As a person of privilege coming into a place not my own, that I have never lived in, worked in, worshiped in, loved in, or struggled in, how do I really know what the needs are? Who am I to decide? What purpose does a brand new construction, contemporary, office space with shiny cars and employees rocking their Banana Republic professional attire serve when the average community member cannot afford to pay their light bill, let alone spend $100.00 on an outfit for work? Who am I making comfortable when I ask a client if they would like an espresso from our in-house espresso bar? Who am I helping when my comfort is critical to my survival, safety, and productivity?
In an article I came across called “Privileged Places” the author writes, ‘Privilege cannot be understood outside the context of place.’ Eighteen or so months ago I would have understood these few words so much differently in a way that reinforced my own justifications and desires for being a catalyst for world peace. Today, I look at this sentence and know with certainty that ‘privilege cannot be understood outside the context of place’. Living within the confines of my identity, I am stunted in my understanding of what my new communities fundamental needs, wants, and desires are because I do not know them. I have not lived, struggled, worshiped, loved, or lost here, therefore I am not qualified to make decisions regarding these things.
My goal in writing this blog post is not to discredit or discount the amazing work and effort of those in the non-profit community or those who chose to enter into service. I believe that for the most part intentions are true, but the reality is that;
“The Second Rule is that the greatest harm can result from the best intentions. It sounds a paradox, but kindness and good intentions can be an insidious path to destruction. Sometimes doing what seems right is wrong, and can cause harm. The only counter to it is knowledge, wisdom, forethought, and understanding the First Rule. Even then, that is not always enough.”
– Terry Goodkind