As a student attending a wealthy, predominately white institution, I’m no stranger to the volunteer stories of my colleagues and teachers. The tales of missionary trips to build schools in Africa (yes, apparently the entire continent?) and community service projects to build wells or create climate-adaptation policies in underprivileged communities echo through the walls of elite universities and are boastfully uttered from the mouths of some of your favorite “activists” without fail.
You may be asking yourself, “What’s so wrong with doing work to help a community in need?” or “Isn’t volunteering a good thing?” and to a certain extent, you’re right. Volunteering and advocacy work aren’t inherently problematic activities—the issue is that many of these so-called philanthropists don’t actually take the time to genuinely listen to the communities they claim to want to help.
As we work to address the intricate link between systemic racism and climate change, it’s also important to take note of the traces of colonial mindsets in our approaches to climate action in underprivileged communities. Since the dawn of colonialism, many less economically developed nations have been viewed as spaces for the more privileged members of society to showcase their “good hearts” by traveling to these countries and imposing their ideas and beliefs under the guise of “heroism.” This idea is what we’ve come to refer to as the “white savior complex.”
On white saviorism, Michael Mumisa, a scholar at the University of Cambridge, wrote that the complex has historical connotations. He said, “It’s not about individual intentions but impact. Its impact is the continued dehumanization and colonial infantilization of over a billion Africans.”
In my classes that focus on climate adaptation and environmental projects, many of the conversations center on the narrative of climate experts venturing into communities they have no prior knowledge of and dictating to the community what their biggest climate problems are and how they need to fix them. Not only is this extremely reminiscent of colonial and imperialist mentalities that sought to impose Western (read: allegedly “superior”) ideologies onto foreign countries, but it helps to reinforce the destructive cycle that makes systemic oppression that much more prevalent.
When thinking about community-organizing and climate adaptation, it all boils down to considering who should have the final say on proposed solutions to assist a community—the people who have lived there for their entire lives and know the area like the back of their hand, or strangers with an arbitrary background in climate science but no grasp of
the community itself? There’s a certain hubris to the notion that people who have studied human rights or environmental science within the confines of a classroom should be afforded the right to speak over the people who have actually lived that experience for their entire lives. It’s the elitist and ultimately harmful idea that a shiny degree makes academics the end-all-be-alls in their respective fields of study, that they’re immune to criticism and input from those they deem inferior.
The best approach to effective community organization? Humility.
It’s important to recognize that we in the West tend to have a warped sense of the world that can stop us from considering important factors in community-organizing projects. The other day, I was told about a woman who volunteered to assist women in a refugee camp. She spent time listening to the women to hear what supplies were most needed within the camp, and the answer? Feminine hygiene products.
When asked why she decided to ask for donations of pads instead of the menstrual cups that her fellow volunteer friends claimed were “much better for the environment,” she had to explain to them that pads were what the women in that community wanted and were comfortable with. What the privilege of those recommending the eco-friendly menstrual cups failed to recognize is that menstrual cups require private space, boiling water, and many other resources that the women didn’t have. So, had the volunteer not spoken directly with the community, she would not only have been unaware that the women needed feminine hygiene products, but she also may have provided menstrual cups or other supplies that weren’t useful for that specific community.
If you want to actually help marginalized communities, talk to them. Empower them! Give them access to educational resources. Give them a voice to develop their community, and help them to tell their stories instead of telling them what their stories should be. It can be as simple as asking the community “What do you need?” or “Do you want this project here?” Humble yourself and recognize the importance of hearing from the community about their history, their culture, and the problems they face before going into their communities, guns blazing (metaphorically I hope), and imposing what you believe to be the best solution.
Photo by Alexander Chambers for Arizona Central