Mama Knows Best

Ben Folds has a song about a couple on the verge of breaking up that I hold in mind when I start to get self-righteous about someone I feel I've "helped." It's this particular part that humbles me every time:
She said, "You've been pushing me like I was a sore tooth.
You can't respect me 'cause I've done so much for you."
He said, "Well I hate that it's come to this
But baby I was doing fine. How do you think
That I survived the other 25 before you?"

Note the difference between this...
On Monday night my cousin took me to a talk at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, where we heard Kavita Ramdas speak about the value of investing in women and so-called "women's issues" that really concern the whole population (trivial things like education and health care, pfft). She challenged the very word "developing," asking us to consider what these countries were supposed to be developing into, exactly. Considering the current economic climate in the "developed" countries of the West, they may not present a healthy, successful model for other countries to follow. She went on to site five diverse examples from around the world of local women solving very specific local issues within their communities, and asked us to consider that the scale of impact of a project does not necessarily dictate its value. At the end, I commented on my increasing discomfort with all the various "Save Africa" campaigns and asked how she would defend the specific, local work being done by great organizations like RAWA and Project Air to people who place high value on projects of a large, general scale.

...and this

Much to my delight, she flew into a beautifully eloquent tirade about the arrogance of "saving" anyone. As the former president and CEO of the grant making organization Global Fund for Women, she found that the amount of money poured into a project had very little to do with its success. What was the biggest factor? The commitment and investment of the community. She asserted that in order to really, truly be helpful, one would need to examine their own underlying assumptions about the people they might seek to help.

For example...These days the general public seems to view Africa as a single country filled with nothing but emaciated AIDS babies, violent conflict and desperate poverty. Do those things exist on the African continent? Awfully, yes, and they are causes worth shedding light on. But this is not Africa's only story. Africa is an enormous, richly diverse land mass with some countries and people that don't need saving at all. Many of the problems that exist in some of the places in Africa are a direct result of the influences and aftermath of colonization, and the continued influence of foreign business interests intent on squeezing every drop of oil, every diamond, every precious metal out of the soil. Africa doesn't need to be saved. For the first time in far too long, it needs to be left well enough alone.

Which is not to say that I am opposed to providing help to the places and people that require it. However, I think it's important to make sure that the help you seek to provide is actually relevant and necessary. How does one go about determining if someone needs help? You ask them- "Do you need help? What sort of help do you need?" For who will have a better sense of priorities than the people who might need help? To decide that you already know what is best is to fall back on your underlying assumptions, which may or may not be correct. How will you know if you don't ask?

As another example...Perhaps you are concerned about the plight of oppressively veiled Afghan women. If you were to ask the feminist political and social organization RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan) what they needed, they wouldn't beg you to save them from the veil. They would implore you to send them more small digital cameras so they can continue documenting human rights abuses through holes they cut in their burqas. They would tell you how the burqa has become a shield, allowing them anonymity in their efforts to subvert the very people who seek to oppress them. They would ask you to send school supplies so they can continue to educate women and children, and medical supplies so they can continue to treat people in refugee camps. This powerful Afghan women's group is saving Afghanistan from the inside, and they have the intelligence and where with all to do it.

Personally, I came to understand the vital necessity of self-salvation during my time volunteering on a suicide crisis line. I could say all kinds of things to callers to soothe or distract, but ultimately they had to decide to save their own lives. The line is designed to be supportive, but moreover, empowering. I was there to empower callers to do something about making their lives move livable, operating under the idea that they had the ability and, more importantly, the right to make their own informed choices. Some people needed more help than others, but everyone still had the power of choice. When they chose to keep living it was them that were the saviors, not me.

People are capable of doing all kinds of extraordinary things. Sometimes people make harmful choices for themselves, but those are their choices to make. Sometimes people are stubborn and will refuse help when they actually need it. Except in the cases of emergency surgery or being pulled from a burning building, we are the ones who save ourselves. We leave relationships that aren't working. We get (and use) a gym membership. We liberally apply sunscreen. We recognize a need in our community (or country) and find ways to address that need. We are the ones we've been waiting for.

When offering assistance to another, make sure they need it. If they need assistance, make sure you know exactly what kind. Never presume to know what they need and, unless you're the firefighter on the tall ladder, never posture as their savior. Throw your support to community organizations that are doing the work you didn't even know needed to be done until you found them. Humble yourself before heartbreaking issues that seem utterly insurmountable by asking what needs to be done and if there is anything you can do to help.

It's time that we move past the gross, patronizing, imperialistic idea that "Africans" (or any other people of "developing" nations) are godless heathens that need saving. It's time that we let go of the insecurity that propels us to assert that our way is the only way. It's time to grow up, get real humble and ask:
How may I serve? What may I share?

There is so much we don't know and can't ever hope to know if we don't ask.


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