I have never been a cynic, but a recent article made me question basic human decency. The article titled, “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist” by Pippa Biddle assesses her experience building a library in Tanzania while she was in high school. Although her group thought they were making a difference, what they were really doing was causing work for the community they were supposed to be “helping.” Everyday they would lay “structurally unsound bricks,” which the men in the community had to disassemble and then reassemble each night. To expand upon this example, she readily admits how flawed and problematic the trip was, memorably stating that, “$3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.” The last part of this sentence was what truly made me question what social justice really is. Is it just an excuse to go on a fun trip, take a few selfies with the people you are “helping,” and collect yet another interesting story you can bring up at fancy dinner parties? Is it really just glorified tourism? Do we really care about the people we are supposedly “helping,” or, if we truly cared, would we just butt out and stop trying to take control over an already dire situation?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and this article has made me wonder whether intent really matters. I don’t think this article should make us cynics, but I do think it should make us question our intent. I’m going to argue that often, intent doesn’t matter. Someone can try to be as nice, and respectful, and understanding as possible, but these qualities won’t build a library. These qualities won’t stabilize the symbolic “unsound bricks” of our actions.
I know that Carleton is all about social justice. I know many people who are thinking about doing Non-governmental organization (NGO)/non-profit work this summer in other countries. Now, I know these people. They are passionate about life and about the world both around them and beyond, but I just don’t know if one summer’s work is really going to make things better. Even if their actions help in the short term, most will leave when the summer is over, never to return. The thing is, they CAN leave. For them, it’s just an experience. What they are really doing is visiting, or, to put it more bluntly, trespassing into others lives. What makes this so wrong is that the people they are “helping” cannot leave. If a project that is meant to help them fails, they are actually affected by it. Those who are in charge of the project can just shake their heads and say, “well, at least I tried.”
Trying does not make things better! Trying is risky, and people often don’t put their all into something that isn’t going to directly effect them. So, instead of working by the mantra, “go big or go home,” I propose that people take a second to think about the implications of their actions. I propose that, before we accidently cross the line of human decency so far that we can’t turn back, we dip our feet in first. Just like building a library, each brick of social justice needs to be laid carefully, slowly, and with purpose. My friend recently said something that struck me to the core, “not everyone needs to do big things to contribute in big ways.” So, let’s focus on actually doing something fundamentally right for a change, instead of what gives us some messed-up sense of glory.