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Schleimer '12: The myth of giving back

For many students at Brown, it seems as though the world beyond College Hill is just waiting for us to change it - and this attitude is fantastic. The passion and sheer optimism that many students display for good causes merit appreciation. Whether it's bringing clean water to the slums of Mumbai, mentoring refugee children in Providence or selling jewelry handcrafted by women of an indigenous community in the Amazon, Brown students do some pretty inspiring work in their free time.

Call it youthful optimism or liberal peer pressure, but the normal thing to do on our progressive campus is volunteer somewhere. Brown loves students who engage with issues outside the classroom, and as long as you're addressing some greater societal problem or just "giving back to the community," you're bound to get props from socially conscious peers.

What's problematic is that it doesn't actually matter what you do or who you're doing it to. We view students' engagement with the community as a categorically good thing. By exalting the fact that students devote time and energy toward serving the community beyond Brown, we've obscured the selfish motivation driving students' philanthropic endeavors. The real goal of participating in a student group is not to effect real change in the world, it's just to practice.

What we do in college is all about experimentation, and extracurriculars are a means of taking what we learn in the classroom and applying it hands-on. We have this idea that students working for a good cause without pay is a noble endeavor, but students' motivations for the activities they spend time on are entirely self-centered.

Students join philanthropic organizations not out of altruism but out of curiosity, and it takes a decent amount of candy to bring them to the table at the Activities Fair in the first place. Even though their mission statement is ostensibly to serve others or promote a larger cause, the ways in which students "give back" in the abstract are deceptively self-serving.

Consider how many students pay to volunteer in a developing country or, like me, decide to teach English as a way to see for myself some of the social problems I learned about in the classroom. At the end of three weeks in the Ecuadorian Amazon, it felt great when all of my students would say, "Thank you, teacher!" over and over again. I came home from my trip with a wonderful new perspective on my life of privilege, a Facebook album full of pictures and some serious liberal street cred.

But were those students and their community really better off? No, not really. Wouldn't the people in the community have been better served if, instead of thousands of dollars being spent for me to live with a host family and play with adorable schoolchildren, they were provided with the resources they need to give their children a decent education and lift themselves out of poverty?

Most people agree that poverty tourism tends to perpetuate rather than address social inequalities, but not everyone sees the parallels in local interactions between town and gown. It's truly wonderful how supportive the University can be when students have lofty change-the-world aspirations, but in the end no one asks whether they've been able to impact the lives of individuals or communities qualitatively for the better.

Up here on College Hill, we are a small and privileged group that, thanks to our education, possesses additional knowledge about the way the world works. But just because we use bigger words to describe social problems does not mean we are entitled to mess around in other peoples' lives. If anything, academic training makes us more prone to objectifying the communities we serve.

We learn to speak about injustice with sweeping strokes - violence is structural, and human rights are universal. But people are people too, even when they are victims of systematic oppression, and other people's communities are not our sandboxes to play in. Just because we understand their problems in academic terminology does not give us any claim on their hardships or a right to intervene. It's certainly a valuable part of our education, but it's also a part of their lives.

These communities will continue to exist long after we graduate and our brief forays into serving their needs are over. It's only through forging honest, reciprocal relationships that we might hope to change their lives for the better. The best we can do is recognize that when we engage with the problems of another community, we sometimes get more than we give.

 

 

Lauren Schleimer '12 is either emboldened or humbled, depending on her mood.


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