Why I Think We Should Examine Our Motivations to Help Others

When I was young, I was involved in programs at a church in the low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood where my family lived.

One day when I was 16 years old, some friends and I were walking down the street when we came across a couple of shiny new vans delivering a small hoard of white kids dressed in optimistic clothes to the church.

Curious, we we asked some of the youth what they were doing. Nonchalantly, they said they were here to paint this ghetto church, pointing at our fortress of hope.

When we asked if we could help, an adult with the group told us it was their project, and they’d be doing the painting. We brought our concerns to the minister, who explained they were missionaries from another state and this was mission trip, to paint our church.

That didn’t make any sense to me then, and I spent more than a decade trying to reconcile their well-meaning intention and my sense of dejection.

As an adult, I’ve met bunches and bunches of well-meaning middle class people and white people who want to save the world without ever looking at how to empower people to save themselves. These same folks rarely examine their own complicity in oppression and the ongoing slight of snobbery in volunteerism and philanthropy.

With so many people more focused on “changing the world” today, I think it’s high time that we reflect on Gandhi’s call for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world. We each have to examine our motivation.

I’ve been writing about that process for a long time without ever offering rationale for why that matters. The story I share here is meant to show one reason.

If you’re interested, check out my PETS (Personal Engagement Tip Sheets) for practical ways to look inside yourself before you try to change the world. You might also read my poem, Missionary. One of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read about examining our motivations is a speech given by Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions,” where he critically examines what it means to serve others. I also recommend Paulo Freire’s last book, which pushed me to embrace my own assumptions in new ways. Its called Pedagogy of Indignation.

After that, if you want to connect about what to do next just drop me a note.

Race and Responsibility

I live in the little city of Olympia, Washington. Its tucked away at the bottom of the Puget Sound, connected to the ocean but seeming a world apart from a lot of America. That is, until two days ago when two African American men were shot by a white officer.

Suspected of stealing beer from a grocery store, they were identified as suspects and confronted by a solitary officer. He has reported that one of them attacked him with a skate board, and to defend himself he shot the assailant. The second suspect was shot soon afterwards.

Overall, young Olympia regards itself to be a liberal group in a generally progressive town. The incident of a white officer shooting two black men for stealing beer doesn’t bode well, and consequently there was a march within 18 hours of the incident featuring many, many white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice in this case.

Much the same as the protesters yesterday, I am all concerned with the obvious pattern of police militarization, the criminalization of African American men, the school-to-prison pipeline and other clearly heinous acts of prejudice and discrimination against people of color by white people in America today.

However, I think we’re missing something.

One month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X said,

“All my life, I believed that the fundamental struggle was Black versus white. Now I realize that it is the haves against the have-nots.”

Most of us have yet to understand this.

I do believe in the power of Black solidarity. History teaches us through examples like Black Wall Street, Harlem, and my beloved North 24th Street in Omaha.

The fact is that it’s a white power structure that formed, molded and sustained the rotten economy of haves and have-nots in the US, and now more than ever, worldwide. Malcolm X wasn’t releasing anyone of their responsibility for the despicable condition we find ourselves in, and I refuse to as well. My fellow people of European descent appear largely incapable of imagining and implementing a world without inequity and disparity.

That said, the way forward is not based on race, per se. Its based on unity and umoja between races focused on the economic structure enforced by white privilege. Using our hands, hearts, minds and souls, we have to work together to dismantle prejudice, whether it is economic, social, cultural, racial, educational or otherwise.

Just beyond that, all of us everywhere on this planet have to realize that there really is no “them” and “us” – there’s only us. We actually are all in this together, and we are all completely interdependent upon one another.

But between here and there, I don’t think there’s a crime in recognizing culpability, complicity and connectivity. It all started somewhere, its going somewhere and almost all of us are going along with it, until we don’t anymore.

What we’re missing is that each of us, no matter what our race, has a role in doing something right now. If you’re a white mom at home, go meet people of color and introduce your kids to them. If you’re a person of color going to a predominantly white college, go meet some white people you never thought you would and just talk to them without educating them on race or economics, just listen to them. If you’re a Irish person in France go spend your money in businesses belonging to Middle Eastern immigrants. If you’re young, hold a sit-in in your school and teach people about overthrowing the white wealth structure that benefits white people – no matter what your skin color is. If you’re old, listen to some conscious hip hop and really let it teach you.

No matter who you are, DO something. Let’s stop acting so innocent through our ignorance and inaction, and start acknowledging our complicity and responsibility. Only then can we meet James Baldwin’s insistence that we can,

“insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others … we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

We HAVE TO change the history of the world. Starting… NOW.

White Culture Dominates Youth Engagement

White middle class culture dominates youth engagement. As the predominant culture in the U.S. today, white people operate many of the nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and education institutions where youth engagement activities occur throughout our society.

In most communities, white people like me create the policy, write the grants, operate the programs, identify the participants, develop the activities, hire the workers, manage the budgets, discipline the participants, evaluate and assess the activities, and promote youth engagement as a concept.

Elements of white middle class dominant culture are the driving force in our notions, activities, knowledge, ideals, and outcomes from youth engagement. Our ways of operating, our systems of belief, and our culture drives the nature of the work we do. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

In their article “Elements of White Middle Class Dominant Culture“, authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identify the following traits as elements: Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, I’m the only one, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, and the right to comfort.

These traits are predominant in much of the youth engagement work I’ve seen across North America over the last decade. Perfectionism is typical of many organizations and programs that constantly strive to “get it right” without ever finding contentment among the ambiguity of young people. Many other traits, including quantity over quality; only one right way; either/or thinking; power hoarding; I’m the only one; bigger/more thinking; and the right to comfort are hallmarks for many programs and projects.

I find myself responsible for perpetuating many of these traits as I teach people about youth engagement. I constantly talk about the urgency of now, frequently inciting Dr. King’s work while railing against the perpetual disengagement of youth in most communities. The defensiveness implicit in my call extends from a sense of not-worthiness when I bring up the topic of youth engagement. Thinking about individualism and paternalism, I can see my entire practice as a consultant come into focus, as I work alone in many circumstances.

Identifying these traits isn’t about what is bad or wrong; instead, its an acknowledgment that there is another way to do things. Einstein’s insistence that doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity may be spot on; we need new visions for youth engagement if we’re ever going to achieve mainstream cultural and social change.

If nothing else, I am going to facilitate new conversations for people to talk about the white middle class hegemony of youth engagement. I am going to make space for more cultures to inform and motivate youth engagement. I am going to keep bringing more people into the conversation, and continue stepping out of the way when its time.

What are YOU going to do?

 

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