In a recent meeting with a board member of an international non-profit, I was asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Grace, have you ever lived in a third world country?” My initial response was defensive, and mumbly, and I was immediately ashamed as I blundered through an explanation that was part apology and part frail justification. Sure, I’d visited a bunch of third world countries, but my comeback was weak… “I have recently returned from a 10-day trip to South Africa, but no, I have never LIVED in a third world country.” I took a breath, and a long sip of my chilled bottled water, and realized with remorse, that I have never even considered that as an idea.
In my cushy seat on the train back home from my meeting, my thoughts kept receding to that same question and I was now considering for the first time if I was the right fit for work with any organization that advocates for, assists and provides life-saving services to folks living in third world countries. Had my passion to help those that are marginalized gone too far? Should I just stick to domestic issues in my home country? Was helping people in other cultures too much of a stretch?
It would not be my job to actually provide the program services, instead, I would need to raise money through various means such as building up donor relations, crafting grant proposals and speaking publicly about the work that the talented teams were achieving in communities far, far away. I am living a privileged existence, but would that privilege taint my ability to be effective?
The conversation moved on and we traveled into deeper, more philosophical territory. We arrived in a mind melding space where we both agreed that our western hemisphere influences converged with eastern hemisphere tenets creating a kinder, gentler view on humanity and the power of compassion and altruism. I walked away from the meeting with a smile, but that illusive question would haunt me for days.
So, I did what I predict many privileged people do when they are embattled with inner conflict, I opened up my laptop and googled “privilege in a third world country” not really knowing what would pop up. Could I research my way to harmony in my drive to grow through new cultural experiences? I remembered the infamous author Richard Bach had a character in one of his stories who would open up a book, any book, and put his finger on a place on a page, and the sentences surrounding would provide an existential message. Was googling illusive subjects a modern way of implementing this practice? I wasn’t sure, but how could it hurt? I read on.
I found a resource that really spoke to me and so I am sharing some of Courtney Martin’s brilliant words with excerpts from her article entitled The “Third World” Is Not Your Classroom. The link to the entire article is: https://brightthemag.com/the-third-world-is-not-your-classroom-9eee1546f565
There is a sort of autopilot story of privilege that so many of us tell about our time abroad — whether we are part of a study abroad group, living with a host family while interning at a nonprofit organization, or volunteering with a religious organization. We go to help and learn, and we tell ourselves and others that those we met were similarly appreciative of the exchange.
Setting aside the question of whether our help is actually effective…let’s look more deeply at this question of how privileged people learn. It is not uncommon for us to see our learning as something that we, alone, manifest; this one-sided point of view is strengthened by the language of our most elite institutions, where college students have a “shopping period” during which they decide which classes they want to take. Learning, rather than being an exchange, becomes an act of consumption.
Even though Ms. Martin’s article focuses on the in’s and out’s of college study abroad, I was happy to find this resource. Another section of the article spoke to me in light of the current news and twitter communications that surfaced this week.
And perhaps even more essential, but far less straightforward, is humility on the part of visiting Americans. Humility, put simply, is our capacity to know that there is much we don’t know, and act accordingly. It’s a sign of wisdom. As physicist Robert A. Millikan put it: “Fullness of knowledge always and necessarily means some understanding of the depths of our ignorance, and that is always conducive to both humility and reverence.”
I guess in the end, what fuels my drive is also seeded in not knowing what I don’t know. Am I searching for answers when I don’t even know all the questions yet? I guess I’d rather strive for those doses of humility whenever I can, utilizing my privilege for whatever good I can conjure, instead of accepting the bleak alternative. Compassion wins, even if experience trails behind.