In high school, I had several experiences that motivated me to become an activist. These experiences were strongly formative during my young adult years and lead me to be the person I am and the passion I have today. And although they helped me develop into a more informed, privilege-conscious and effective advocate for causes I deeply care about and am connected to, those experience weren’t perfect. My activism was once problematic and no, that is not something to be proud of. But, through my misguided, naive, and challenged experiences as a young activist, I realized how much I had left to learn (and still do), how the mindsets I had concerning activism and service were unintentionally but still notably damaging and condescending, how important it is to be a work in progress, and how necessary it is to admit your gaps of understanding and awareness.
During my sophomore year of high school, I went to an assembly where I saw a documentary about child soldiers and the atrocities committed by the Lords Resistance Army in the Congo. The documentary made me feel uncomfortable with my privilege and opened my eyes to a global humanitarian crime that I had never been aware of before. I remember thinking how unimaginable it was to me that a crisis like this existed in our world today. I felt guilty thinking that there were children across the world suffering from such traumatic and unfair circumstances simply because of the place and situations they were born into. And as a high school student, with my lack of global and national awareness and limited traveling experience, thought that social injustices only happened in third-world countries. I was so wrong and incredibly naive.
The documentary was successful in the sense that after seeing someone’s pain essentially being put on display, I was more aware of an issue I didn’t once know was existent and I started to care more about what was happening in the world around me. Caring and actually giving a shit about something bigger than yourself is one of the first steps to being a decent human being (in my book) and when further developed and challenged, an entry to a passion for activism and advocacy work. But I was tremendously misguided and my passion was misplaced, superficially formed, and full of privilege that I hadn’t unpacked. I was so stuck in my bubble of privilege that I didn’t even know what ‘unpacking your privilege’ meant or that I even had something to ‘unpack’….which is a privilege within itself. Bear with me, I know that just got layered and confusing.
From first seeing the documentary about the child soldiers in Northern Uganda to my student leadership in a substance abuse prevention and awareness organization, my activism felt personal to me but for many ill-founded and naive reasons. I didn’t recognize or accept my privilege in the community I grew up in because one aspect of my life put me at a slight disadvantage compared to my peers. I lived in an affluent suburb of Connecticut with hardly any racial or socioeconomic diversity. In my personal life, I was fortunate to be born into a family of two middle-class parents with PhDs and full-time, well-paid jobs. I looked like my peers for the most part, acted like them, and for some time, had similar home lives to them. After my father lost his job, admitted his long battle with alcoholism to my family, separated and later divorced from my mother, and transitioned into a neglectful parent, I realized that there was something in my life that made me feel inferior to my advantaged peers. Selfishly, as a teenager, I felt like something was unfair about our situation at home and I harbored those angry feelings for a while. Aside from feeling angry though, witnessing my father’s addiction was painful and helped open my eyes in a different way than the documentary about the injustices in the Congo. Seeing my father suffer in his own way made me realize that adversity exists everywhere and it knows no boundaries. I was experiencing someone’s hardship firsthand – not through a documentary and it again, made me feel uncomfortable and forced me to work through my ignorance and privilege. The fact that these realizations were happening within my own home was a wake-up call for me. And although it sounds ludicrous that I didn’t once know or realize this, injustices and problems aren’t just in third-world countries – they are in our own homes, they plague our neighbors, they are inflicted upon those we know and don’t know in every state and town.
And that’s when I realized, that up until that point, my activism was defined and influenced by this sensationalized global and colonialism-esque, white-savior/guilt canon that I quickly needed to correct, inform, and get rid of. Seeing the documentary about child soldiers in Africa motivated me to feel guilty about my privilege, position of race in my society, and living in a first-world nation. And for a lot of activists, guilt is a motivator in the work that they do but my guilt drove me in directions that lead to problematic activism. While my passion for international aid had good intentions, I was perpetuating so many offensive and naive notions and ideas that were way more harmful than helpful. But as a teenager, I thought I was really contributing and I felt good about my motives and actions…until they were challenged by others and by myself. After I came back from volunteering as an English teacher in Ghana, I knew my activism and volunteer efforts needed to be re-examined and changed. By traveling to Ghana through an international volunteer agency to serve as a teacher, I was essentially acting as an exhibitionist of local community members’ struggles and accidentally – but ostentatiously showing off my privilege and my ‘ability to lend a helpful hand and serve from a first-world nation’.
Although as a teenager I thought my intentions were pure and well-meaning, I was embodying the highly problematic trope of the white-savior. As if my 5 weeks spent teaching English in a rural community in Ghana saved any lives or changed the world. It didn’t. And I don’t mean that pessimistically, I mean that in the most pragmatic and sensible way possible. My activism was problematic because I fed into this trendy idea of activism and ‘changing the world’. Don’t get me wrong, I think having an optimistic and idealistic view of how the world and communities can improve is important and helpful in many way. But in my case, I was misinformed, misguided, and excited by the idea of being a do-gooder, solving the world’s injustices, and making this planet a better place. Please refer to my photo above which I think speaks volumes to my misguided and ignorant views on service and activism. It was until halfway through college did I finally come to terms with the fact that my ‘activism’ wasn’t helping – in fact, it was ineffective and perpetuating so many blind, masked-with-privileged, and naive notions.
And I’m not sharing my changed mindset on activism as a pity or sob story by any means…please don’t ‘feel bad’ that I was naive and wanted to ‘do good’ but really ended up doing more harm. This is a call to action for those of you or for those you know that may have some questionably engrained ideas of what volunteering, activism, and social justice really are. My activism is still a work in progress and is imperfect in so many ways, but by being more informed about how problematic my activism once was, I can hopefully engage in important dialogues where re-education, re-examination, and acceptance (followed by change) of privilege and naiveté is possible. Not only can I possibly make small waves of change by engaging in those dialogues with activists who may have good intentions but their actions are misleading and problematic, but I can also be one less person who perpetuates harmful, offensive, and unhelpful ideas of what being an activist or volunteer mean.
Yes, we need people who care and who are compassionate towards those who are discriminated against, marginalized, and experience injustices. But we need people who care in a way that isn’t motivated by guilt and privilege, isn’t rooted in a problematic identity complex, and doesn’t perpetuate a patronizing and ‘us versus them’ idea of activism and service. We should all get to a point where we can engage and promote activism and social justice effectively, inoffensively, and in a way we are proud of.