Confronting the Work My Privilege Means I Must Do
The following is the first of five reflections on a service trip that members of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara YRUU group made to New Orleans, LA. The group spent three days in New Orleans and six on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, working with local organizations through the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. The youth group's work focused on the issues of racism and privilege with an eye toward taking what they learned to foment positive change in their home community. This trip was made possible by the industrious fundraising of the youth group (who we are told sold lots and lots of quiche), YRUU families, and the Unitarian Universalist Association Katie Tyson Fund for Youth and Young Adult Ministries. – ed.by Lily Stelzer
Coming from a place of privilege (white, middle-class), helping other people is mostly possible for me.
I’m able to volunteer, to campaign across the country, and personally assist those whose circumstances are less fortunate than mine. I’m able to introduce myself briefly into communities, work to alleviate their need, and then return home satisfied. Satisfied because helping feels good. Because there’s a personal pleasure in helping, a tangible reward for the helper.
When you can see the work that you’ve done, when your influence is visible and your intentions are good, your work to help still feels like work but it also feels like personal gratification.
But more and more I’m realizing that this is not the help that is most needed. The help that makes the helper feel the best - the visible help, the immediate help, the biggest help, the fastest - is the help that band-aids the surface of a need that runs much, much deeper.
You can rebuild a house for a victim of the Katrina flood of 2005 and you will have done a good thing and you will feel good for doing it. But building a house for a family whose insurance would not pay for the damages of a flood, or feeding a homeless person who receives no help from the government of the country with the ninth highest GDP per capita in the world, or cleaning the traditional hogan home of a woman whose people make an average of $30,000 less per household than the American average does not facilitate a change in the system.
The help our country needs is not the help that makes you feel good. It’s the kind of help that’s hard, the kind of help that isn’t over in a week or a year or even our lifetimes. We live in a society that is built on and stabilized by beliefs that allow families to be driven from their homes, allow the impoverished no rehabilitation or opportunity, allow an entire people to be forced from their land and imprisoned, and allow me - white and middle-class - to fly across the country with the belief that I am helping.
Our trip to New Orleans redefined my place as a person able to help. The power I have as a white person, the power that allows me to rebuild the home of someone in need and feel good about the help I’ve given, is a power that has been granted to me by a history of violence and oppression. The country that allows me the stability and funds to step outside my home without fear, allows me to travel to new communities and volunteer, is the same country that has facilitated the problems I believe I’m helping to solve.
Volunteering physical labor only fixes so much. The help that you can see immediately only solves that immediate problem. Beneath the surface of broken-down houses and hunger and poverty is a system that needs to be changed, a set of beliefs that needs to be reformed, a lifetime of work I’ve only just begun that gives no immediate satisfaction, no feeling of personal reward, and has no foreseeable end.