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On neocolonialism

6 April 2011

Last night, the organization where I have my site placement held a massive fundraising event aimed at the effort to end youth violence in the city. A noble cause, to be sure. The problem, however, is the way it is done. Tables for the event were sold for thousands of dollars to the rich, white denizens of the city (read, the suburbs). And the people targeted for volunteering to serve food, etc.? The poor black youth who are part of the organization’s programming. We’re going to parade around our poor black youth, but also use them as staff. That’s right, poor black youth serving the rich white people who they are essentially begging to give them money. What makes all this worse is that they overbooked the event, meaning that the volunteers didn’t get to eat, and didn’t get to stay in the room where the event was happening. Poor black youth serving the rich white people food that they didn’t get to eat themselves, and then having to go upstairs into a different room.

I, thank God, didn’t have to attend the event because I had a prior commitment. But when I heard about this state of affairs last night, I had the urge to drink copiously. I have had major philosophical disagreements with the organization for a while about taking their white man’s guilt and overly-privileged status and going to go “help” the people they’ve disadvantaged, but only according to their way of thinking. Tom and Dee Yaccino write about this:

Be careful, though, to not misuse your power, knowledge, influence, and money to get your own plans accomplished. We all know that if you have enough of any of those things (especially money), you can make almost anything happen. Again, what could be wrong with that?

The problem is that within the framework of empire, power means, “We will tell you want to do,” and knowledge means, “We know better than you,” and influence means, “We are entitled to have our way,” and money mean, “We control what happens.” Our superpower tendency is to make our own assessment of what is wrong, figure out the solution, get the resources we need to implement it, and bring it all in a neat little package to wherever we deem worthy of receiving it. And while our plans may be accurate in appraising the mess our world is in, and exceptional at raising a lot of awareness and money, they are usually ineffectual at translating efforts into sustainable transformational action where it counts. While our plans may attract donors because they come in convenient, measurable, super-sized combos that claim “we” can do something bigger, better, and faster than anyone else, they rarely deliver what they promise.

Because we were educated at Harvard or Yale or Stanford, we must know better than you what you need. So, here, come let us provide for you and help you get into our world, because that’s the dream, after all: To be like us. And that will assuage our guilt, because we’re actually doing something for you. And then we can go and show all our friends and they can see how they too can get rid of their guilt (and if we look good and noble in the process, well, all the better).

I don’t doubt that these people have the best intentions at heart. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that we are again disenfranchising people from the process. We are not empowering people to do their own development, to take control of their own destiny, to be personally invested in their well-being. Why is this important? Doesn’t food taste better when you labored for hours over a stove to cook it yourself?

Instead, this is aiming to fix a situation, that is, to remain outside of it and do external repairs. We go in with all of our imperialistic privileges of money, education, influence, and power to create unsustainable, often superficial efforts that don’t have the momentum to affect anything, neither problem nor cause.

I do not dispute that youth violence is a problem. Nor do I take offense at the notion that we should do something about it. But this is not the way.

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