Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Statement of Purpose

For the last few months (or really since I got back from France) I have been grappling with the idea of going abroad to teach again. There have been several things that have made me pause. Some of the concerns have been more superficial, but the main idea that keeps coming back to me is: How can I justify it?

I can't help but feel like going to another country to teach is really just a form of selfishness. Or is it laziness? Traveling abroad, teaching and even working for non-profits has been glorified to the point of cliche in my generation. Everyone and their brother has had some sort of amazing experience. Don't get me wrong, travel is important. Anyone who has done so can tell you of the ways in which it changed their perspective on things. Maybe even changed their lives. My first trip to France changed my life. I have no doubt.

But here I am, in DC where there is plenty to do. Plenty of causes worth fighting and really, plenty of students. Why do I feel the need to go elsewhere? It's like saying "I don't care enough to try to make a difference and be important in my own country. My mere presence in another place will be viewed as helpful and beneficial solely based on my nationality and the privileges I grew up with and continue to enjoy."

On a more personal note:

How can I preach the teaching of social change in other countries when I have done nothing to bolster the courage and the intellect of our own children? How can I talk about helping out my global sisters when I haven't spent the time protecting my actual sisters here in America from the oppressive reproduction bills that are being passed? How can I claim to want to work with refugees in their camps one day when there are refugees right here in DC who need language skills? How can I pretend to want to help some countries future children escape the shame of racial discrimination when my own country still hides from the ways in which is segregates and predetermines the fate of it's different races? How can I long to help the poor and impoverished abroad when I do nothing to ease the suffering of the homeless and needy right in my streets? How can I learn the skills of pelvic therapy for the women of war ridden nations when there are women right here, right now that could use those same skills?

I can't justify it. Ignoring it gives in to the lure of exoticism. It speaks to the privileged life I lead. Ignoring it speaks to the naivety of thinking you can be a great catalyst for change, a great saintly steward of do-good energy in a community where you can't communicate much less understand the complexity of their culture. If you think you can you're fooling yourself. You will be a burden on them until you assimilate. If you can.

To clarify - I'm not saying people shouldn't ever travel or volunteer or live abroad. I'm just saying - let's be clear about it. Let's be honest. Why do you think volunteer-tourism and eco-tourism have become so popular? Maybe we need to stroke our egos even while we "relax." Maybe we feel guilty about those hand-outs from Daddy or the school we went to or the freedom we enjoy and so we feel like we need to "give back," while visiting the most interesting and exotic places in the world. Sure, we can fall back on the "well this is my field of interest," excuse or the "this is what I'm passionate about," one, but really isn't that privilege in and of itself? The opportunity and means to go and live somewhere, study something or perform something that doesn't have anything to do with changing your community, putting food on your table or making sure your children have clothing?

These feelings have been brewing inside me, not fully formed into thought. And then I took the TEFL course and a fellow student asked why I wanted to teach abroad. It all hit me when I said this:

"I want to teach people in their home countries so that they don't have to leave their countries to find opportunity. I want to teach for social change. I don't just want to teach English, I want to teach balanced history, social justice, women empowerment and community building. Social change can only be brought about when the people demand it. The people can only demand it if they are present to do so. Once they leave their countries they leave the conversation. I want to give them the tools to work with their situations and create change for the future."

IRONY. Oh how bitter it tasted as soon as I said it. Social change? You mean the social change I would like to see in MY country? If I leave my country to devote my time to another country's problems, I leave the conversations of my own country's problems behind for someone else to change. I said it myself.

In the Radiolab podcast called Killing Babies, Saving the World they pose a few morality questions. One of them being this:

You're a man walking down the road in a really nice suit. You see a girl drowning. Do you jump in and save her?

Pretty much anyone would say yes to this I imagine. It's the moral thing to do right? But then they ask another questions.

You get home and find a letter in the mail saying that if you just send a $1000 dollars you can save girls on the other side of the world from danger. Do you send the money to save the girls?

Let's take scam artists out of the equation here. It's real girls in real danger and they really need your money. Jad and Robert suggest that you aren't a saint for not sending money...but perhaps it's not immoral either.

Josh Greene who is the Harvard professor who studies morality and was on this podcast went on to explain that our impulse to save the drowning girl comes from the evolutionary impulses in our brain that have stuck with us. Sending the money to the girls across the globe though requires a different part of our brain though. One that has only developed more recently. The abstract part of our brain.

Here is what I find interesting about all that: My generation seems to over-use the abstract without focusing on the here and now part nearly enough. The idea that we can all enact social change just by liking someone's status? We can catch a killer by reposting a video? How freaking abstract is that for you?

All this KONY 2012 stuff really got me thinking about this more. The amount of people who reposted the video on my facebook was amazing. I knew I didn't know enough about the issue to take any stand so I waited. Then the criticism for Invisible Children poured in. One of the main issues raised by the IC videos was the concept of Americans pretending to be saviors and the issue of White Guilt. I tried to talk to a friend about it and ended up hitting a wall. My friend just stopped talking. It seemed that very quickly people got burned out on the topic. Why? I couldn't stop thinking about it.

The criticism for IC came from all over the board and all sorts of people but I kept hearing this underlying message from the Americans in my head as I read them. The message was "I'm really interested in Africa and I want to do something REAL there and not work towards superficial goals. BUT I'm self conscious about this desire BECAUSE of who I am or my experience or lack of. Because I feel uncomfortable and guilty and im grappling with this I also want you to feel uncomfortable and grapple with this."

That's what is said to me.

There was also criticism from citizens of Uganda like this one that speak to this idea of American's puffing themselves up and playing the savior.

Here is MY opinion and what I would offer as a solution to this problem we seem to be having not only with IC but foreign aid in general.

The reason we have this issue of guilt and these misguided desires to be a savior is because of the things we've done in Africa (obviously this does not just apply to Africa) of course but more, I think, because we try to hide from it.

EDUCATION! This is where I want to see the social movement go! If we are so worried about how racist or "privileged white" we come off why are we doing nothing to educate our future generations in a way that will prevent this? If we want to built trust and coordination between nations why are we not teaching it?

The banning of ethnic studies in Arizona is pretty much a direct example of what I'm talking about here. Not only are we denying the students of Latin American or Native American background the opportunity to learn and embrace their culture but we are also denying that their culture has any significance to our own. We are teaching that there is only one history. That there is only one right answer. The the "our" is only for the American decedents of Europeans. The way in which our education is controlled to keep us in the dark about the reality of the situations, to keep other cultures as aliens instead of as people is the reason this feeling of guilt persists.

When it comes to other races and cultures I sometimes feel I don't have the right to explore these cultures because I have no background in them. This is the exact situation I am in currently where I want to engage with the black community for a photography project but feel self conscious about it. Why should it be a big deal that I am white and I want to know about MLK and interview the people in my city? The educational system has failed to prepare us for this. Yes economics and other things come into play but mindset is a huge huge part of social change.

If we have the mindset from the beginning in school that we don't even need to study Africa, that it's not even important enough to be mentioned in our world studies programs, it's no wonder we feel uncomfortable about all of the sudden having feelings about this place that we have no connection to. We feel superficial.

I would like to see a move towards better social education. Ethnic studies, literacy, language acquisition, world history that is fair and not biased, more foreign exchange students and teachers, and even classes on social change and international negotiation and peace being implemented on a broader scale.

My question is - how do we get those idiot senators (who have been passing sooo many crazy insane scary laws lately) to pass laws and help implement the things we want to see in the future. Because the future is getting more oppressive and biased, not more open. Why is it that we don't find out about these scary bills until they are already voted through! More could be done on this front really.

So I think what I've realized is that my place is here..that what I want to work on and be active in is education for social change here. Because until we address this issue the guilt will not just go away. And those being "saved" won't trust our genuine desire to help. Any maybe with more social education and change here we might realize that the way we are going about helping isn't nearly as helpful as we would like it to be. We might realize that in order to even the playing field on some of the global issues we get so passionate about, we may need to sacrifice some things. Like not having everything we want. Not eating anything we feel like. And maybe even not traveling to any old place that strikes our fancy and expecting everything to be affordable and user friendly for us

Just a thought.


Pang said...

Nice piece, Lacey. I definitely agree that the change starts here. There are way too many issues here that often times goes unnoticed.

Lacey said...

Thanks for reading Pang! I was kinda worried I might get some backlash by posting this but it's good to know that I'm not the only one who is thinking that things here need to take some precedence! You were up crazy early reading this too!

Christa Mc. said...

Hey girl,

Nice writing! Bravo for thinking outside of the box by considering staying here to serve! Especially in education we need your help since you DO have a global perspective. It may seem like more people do, but maybe it's the crowd you hang with - having similar expectations and experiences. I work for a community college in southern Maryland and I can tell you easily that a global mind-set is very 'D.C.' and is not a common perspective. I brought in a Flamenco dance group just this week as a student activity and students were trying to guess where the dance originated. To my horror, a student guessed China, despite the very Spanish name of the group, Tiempo De Flamenco. Your skills and perspectives can go a very long way here in the states. In this economy, we could use all the help we can get.

As far as exploring new experiences with unfamiliar cultures....just be honest and be yourself. State what you are wanting to learn and don't be afraid to reveal any naïveté or ignorance. You might get some flack or be subject to a couple jokes at first....but so what? Persistence in this area shows you are genuine and often times, that gains respect

Where I reside was not a first choice location, I admit jealousy at seeing your travels to France! But I've learned SO much about community in general that I feel prepared now to interact with anyone. Just go with the flow, be will work out for the best.

I'm ready to leave this area and explore another. I'm taking a look ata great teacher residency program in Denver in areas of high need (I.e. Latino communities). The U.S is so large and varied...I'm sure you'll find your next adventure just around the corner!

Best of luck, and you have some great photography & writing skills. It's pretty n eat to remember you r interest in these things as a kid and to see you flourish in them as an adult! Excuse typos I'm using a tablet. ;)