Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Shattering The Illusion of Service


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


3 comments on “Shattering The Illusion of Service

  1. greatshot5
    May 18, 2017

    It seems that you’re facing the tough challenge of applying critical thinking to life’s work so far. Submitting your work to your own critical analysis takes courage and is likely to open new possibilities and approaches to decision making as you move toward your life’s goals. You are courageous and growing in authenticity and humanness.

  2. Jack Styczynski
    April 26, 2017

    I do not agree with Goodkind’s “Second Rule” at all. I thank you for your service and you should not be “beating yourself up” over it in any way, racially or otherwise. I know your term is coming to an end and you probably need to be away from it for a bit to realize how valuable it was compared to the many in the world who are doing nothing.

    • skjerli4
      April 27, 2017

      Thanks Jack! I appreciate your input. I am in no way, shape, or form trying to discredit the dedication and amazing work that service members do in communities. I just think that it is really important to take time to really understand the impact we make (potential or actual) and who is being served. Sometimes we as humans can get so caught up in the work that we forget to take a step back and think about whether or not we are being helpful or if we are perpetuating the cycle. I do not believe that it is done consciously, but I do think that being aware is critical to being able to really start addressing the root of the systemic oppression and economic inequity.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on April 25, 2017 by in VISTA Field Reports.



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