The Help.

Last week, I finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  And I really liked it.  I ordered the movie from the library and am anxious for it to come it.

For those of you who don’t know, The Help is about life in the south during the Civil RIghts movement.  There is a click of white women living in Jackson and there is the community of black women who serve as maids for them and their friends.  One of the white women starts to drift away from the queen bee of the click as she begins seeing more and more things that are horrible to her about racism, despite her upbringing.  She starts to see her other friend’s blind obedience to the queen bee and how willing she is to give up other friendships for it.  The girl who drifts away from the pack is nicknamed Skeeter, for her being “painfully tall”and thus unattractive to men, and she suddenly begins seeking out the comfort of the maids and the stories that they eventually tell her.  A journalist, she finds a job but ultimately gets her satisfaction from writing a controversial collective of anonymous maids’ stories serving white women and raising their children who inevitably forget their childhood loves and become just like their parents.

I see myself in Skeeter in a lot of ways, like how she wants to understand other people and isn’t afraid to say something’s wrong when it’s not right.  One thing that doesn’t match up with Skeeter and myself, however, is the fact that she’s still so dependent on her parents.  For example: “Goodbye, Miss Phelan.  I hope you make the deadline,” she says, but before she hangs up, she mutters, “and for God’s sake, you’re a twenty-four-year-old educated woman.  Go get an apartment.”

Another passage that stood out to me that I really liked at the time:

I slam the tennis ball into the blackboard, trying my best not to think about anything.  Lately I’ve found myself praying, when I’ve never been a very religious person.  I find myself whispering long, never-ending sentences to God, begging for Mother to feel some relief, pleading for good news about the book, sometimes even asking for some hint of what to do about Stuart.  Often I catch myself praying when I didn’t even know I was doing it.

There was just something in Skeeter’s religionless-ness yet tendency to seek consolation in such a way that reminds me of myself or really anyone who feels weak and confused.

I also found The Help inspirational, like What if someone wrote a book like this about my own causes on the US Reservations?  Maybe one day that will be me, that someone.  Either way, you should check out the book.  It’s long, but it goes by quickly and I think it offers a really unique perspective.  And you know how obsessed I am with perspective.

4 Reasons Why Overseas Volunteer Projects are a Waste of Time

indian-reservation-squalor-shanty-hut-hovels-poor-poverty1-1

Shanties on a US reservation, no better than houses I’ve seen in rural India or West Africa and unfathomably worse than donated facilities at the Nuevo Paraiso mission project in Honduras.

It seems like, growing up, the cool thing for kids to do who went to my fancy private school was to be sent off by their parents on some overseas volunteer project in a third-world country.  I never did anything like this until college, mostly because my mom always shot the idea down.  I never fully understood her reasons until I went on a trip of my own and began reevaluating such overseas volunteer projects.  I decided that I agree with my mom.  The only people these trips really benefit are the travelers themselves, giving them something to put on their resumes.  And although the benefits operate on a case-by-case basis, it is my experience and observations that suggest how these projects are often just a waste of time.  I will outline my reasons below:

1. GIVING OUT FISH.
My family strongly believes in the motto: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish, he eats for life.”  I’ve grown up knowing that expression and beginning to see the truth behind it.  Although my parents use that approach in their political views and anti-welfare standpoints, I see how this fish comparison directly relates to volunteer projects.  It’s easy to give a monetary donation and let someone else handle what happens to the money.  That’s obviously no way to help an impoverished community.  But too often we are still transfixed on materialistic things to improve an entire village.  Why save up money to go build a building?  Most of these communities have all the resources they need to build a building that suits their needs.  Why not lend a physical hand instead?  Why not teach and do less of handing these people supplies and new, shiny things?  Give them all of these donations and the only thing they’ll think is “Wow, Americans have nice, fancy things.  When I grow up, I want to get out of here and go somewhere where these things can be handed to me.”  Not only does handing out fish not allow these people to fix themselves, it encourages them to seek out where they can be handed more fish and prevents them from fixing their old mistakes.  Indirectly, it could also cause communities to disband and lose culture as the younger generations with more potential greedily seek out a life outside of their community for shiny things they don’t need.  And I’m not just making up a hypothesis; it is a serious issue I learned about while on some community projects this summer in rural India.

2. BROKEN THINGS THAT STAY BROKEN.
When I signed up for Engineers Without Borders, I though, Gee, this is cool – I get funded to travel to a really unique place and practice both my French and engineering skills!  The experience helped land me a job and gave me some real world perspective on what life is like in West Africa.  But my trip to Cameroon benefitted myself more than it did the community.  We spent endless weeks organizing, building, delivering, preparing, teaching,…all to end up with empty wallets and a failed system.  We visited a nearby project similar to ours: a solar panel-powered well system installed by the University of Delaware.  What did we find?  An empty water tank at the top of a hill next to a school.  Why was there no water pumping up here?  We found the lower pump where a few kids were squeezing out the only drops they could get.  Why was there not even water at the taps with the greatest hydraulic head?  My colleague found the answer: the solar panels were coated in weeks worth of red, Cameroonian mountain dust.  No one had been cleaning the panels, despite clear instruction from the volunteers to do so.  Back at our own project, we even set up a committee dedicated to clean the panels once a week.  You would think that a quick cleanse isn’t much to ask from a slower paced, rural community, but even our village had to provide an incentive by offering weekly pay to the volunteer.  When I returned to the States and shared my story with my friends, my best friend gave me a link to a video that discussed exactly how EWB projects are inevitable failures.  There is no water coming out a year later.  All of this money and time, and for what?  Why is this happening?  The answer is multi-faceted, having its roots in my fish theory.  Plus, things that break in these rural communities often stay broken.  Why?  Well, what resources are there to fix them?  To fix these projects that are not the standard way of life?  What motive is there to gather the information and to find a way to bring back something that these villages have survived for thousands of years without?  And that brings me to my third point…

3. DON’T FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN.
Why are Americans so in love with themselves that they think their way of life is the solution to the planet’s suffering?  The wasteful, materialistic American way of life is not only greedy and corrupt, but it could easily be contributing indirectly to the suffering of these remote areas.  The environmental impacts of our decisions in the States causes a global reaction that can directly impact the weather conditions and water cycles of these victimized areas.  Still, they thrive the way they have known to thrive for thousands of years.  Throughout history, ancient civilizations have survived and thrived without the assistance of outsiders.  In fact, if anything, these outsiders have obliterated these civilizations before ever significantly impacting them in a positive fashion.  For example, think about the situations in America.  All of the tribal peoples who have lost their identity and land.  All because we think the way we live is the right way?  The sophisticated way?  Go to West Africa and you will see a collage of old and new.  People living in huts who have cell phones.  Why is that?  Well, they want to take advantage of the best of both worlds the best that they can.  But, at the same time, not everyone wants to jeopardize their old ways of life.  It’s what they know.  It’s their comfort zones.  It’s how they have evolved to believe they should live.  I’ve had countless political arguments with sheltered people and friends who felt that invading countries and transforming their governments was the correct solution to everything, but is it really?  Is our government system really the answer?  Is it our business to decide that for anyone but ourselves?  How do we know that we’re right?  I’ve seen first hand how these “less fortunate” people actually believe we’re the unfortunate ones, leading stressful lives and answering to people we hardly know, not understanding anymore what living is or how to appreciate life.  But it’s not just how their systems aren’t broken but how we try to fix them and break them to pieces.  How we strip people of culture.  Perhaps the worst offender of such things is religious cleansing.  I am absolutely opposed to mission trips and anything that operates in another community by the “light of God”.  Can’t people do good things for the sake of life, living, and kindness?  Why is religion attached to any good notion when religion is in fact the cause of so much evil?  So much war?  I see people going to Africa every year on “mission trips”, and all I can think is I hope you feel good about yourself when you shove Bibles down these poor peoples’ throats and rob them of any cultural identity they used to have.  Why not teach them how to read and write?  So they can buy books and learn the newest herbal medicinal discoveries or how to fix their water issues naturally and without the use of energy and pumps?  This religious debacle leads me to my last reason…

4. HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU HELP OTHERS.
Even airlines tell you this before your plane leaves the runway.  While we are so transfixed with being the heroes to people in communities that will never remember our names once we have parted, why don’t we take a look at our own country?  And I don’t mean just soup kitchens and giving handouts to homeless people who continue to drink away their handouts.  I mean the thing that I’m most passionate about: poverty on the reservations.  It’s not because I’m biased because my grandfather is Indian and it’s my focus of work.  It’s because I strongly believe America is responsible for the situation it’s created.  You can’t invade a territory, take over completely from peoples who you don’t even acknowledge as people, set up a system familiar only to the invaders and only at the advantage of said invaders, and then expect the natives to thrive.  That’s just it; they weren’t expected to thrive.  They weren’t considered people, they were murdered without consequences, and they weren’t even accounted for on the census rolls until tribal counts were created.  By that time, most of the less powerful tribes were wiped out or assimilated to a different culture anyway.  The territorial borders kept pushing back, tribes were hit with European clothes, weapons, alcohol, and Bibles, all in an effort to strip them of their identity if not kill them off altogether.  The answer to this problem, when peaceful terms were supposedly going to be met, was to shove these peoples onto a hodge-podge of lousy land parcels called “reservations”.  That was no solution, but everyone seemed to “roll with it” until the Dawes Act sparked up in the late 1800s and unconstitutionally revoked the rights of thousands of American people – American Indian people.  What efforts have been made since to right these wrongs?  A similar wronging was in the African-American slave industry around the same time.  That dispute divided our whole nation until it was resolved and, although we still have racial issues, the States made an enormous effort to right its wrongs.  Can you say that about the native people to whom this land really belonged?  Whose voices aren’t being heard despite their protests?  As an example, Gilmour Academy near my university (and where several of my friends went) sends students annually to Honduras on a mission trip.  Ignoring the fact that it’s a mission, can we ask ourselves why these people are spending thousands of dollars for the glory of assisting (handing fish) to people in a remote, foreign village that will likely stay broken?  One that maybe wasn’t all that “broken” to begin with?  One that actually used to be full of native peoples that were conquered by the Spaniards?  But we’re continuing to perpetuate that wrong as a right by influencing our western ways on the rural populations?  And if the reason of choosing that location is solely based on the poverty level in Honduras being under 50%, have we stopped to consider that a few of the largest Indian reservations in the US with a majority of the native population is in fact exceeding that level of poverty?  Within our own borders?  Okay, so South Dakota or the desert in Utah maybe isn’t as “cool” as Honduras to visit…but is it a volunteer trip or a vacation?  Spend your money wisely.  Don’t blow $1000 on airfare to fix a problem that doesn’t concern you.  10 students’ airfare to go to Honduras could send multitudes more in a workforce to address the issues in our own country.

So there you have it, my rant for the day: how overseas volunteer projects don’t teach a village anything life-changing, how they have a tendency to be short-lived, how they aim to fix things that may not be considered a problem internally, and how they take our attention away from our own neighbors suffering.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who think differently but, until I see some serious changes within our own country and in these overseas projects to be more economical and sustainable, I see no reason to advocate my opinions in anyone else’s favor.

Where American Desensitization Does and Doesn’t Lack

For anyone who might not know, desensitization is quite literally being no longer sensitive to something.  It is a hot topic in the modern world.  There is growing concern in America for how desensitized the younger generations are becoming.  However, I see this fear as slightly ironic; for whilst we are becoming desensitized to some matters, we are hypersensitive to others.

I’d like to argue that our desensitization began with the World Wars.  Media became a huge part of society.  Women, blacks, veterans, even prohibitionists… people were standing out in ways they hadn’t before to make their points and make them heard.  Kids and young adults whose family arose from so much poverty, warfare, and other turmoil were ready to let go.  Then there came the age of Rock and Roll – the perfect cure.  A remedy to the youth, but a curse to the older generations who were clinging to their Bibles and traditions and morals.

This divergence in society is much like the bipartisan divide of our political views.  Conservatives and liberals.  Elvis Presley woke the generations to the sounds of a music revolution.  His successors included Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin.  No longer was it sound and trends that were shocking the culture, but now we passed through a Hippie era with an openness to drug abuse, drinking, letting loose, and noncommittal sex.  Parents cringed at this, and understandably so.  But cracking down on such behavior only enticed rebellious attitude and an association of “coolness” with anarchy-inspired trains of thought.  Self-harm.  Harming others.  Global conflict plastered across kid’s TVs on their video games.

We have looked for a way out of our old lives and flung it into the open.  The media has snatched it up like it does with anything and accelerated this movement.  Kids are glued to TV and the Internet, exposed to global horrors and social degrade faster than our grandparents could have ever imagined.  But now we try to protect them.  We fought for our freedoms in this country, but now we are trying to contain the personal expression we’ve allowed ourselves to utilize in the past.

Cues Hypersensitivity.

“You can’t teach kids that in school!” or “You can’t teach just one perspective!  You have to teach them all.”  “Treat women like equals!  Sexism is a thing of the past!” then “Don’t give women special treatment because that’s sexist!”  These are just some examples.  Basically, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.  It is sooo dumb.  I could say, “It is sooo retarded” and someone would have a fit.  You can’t say this word, you can’t say that word.  You can’t call someone that name, but they can say that word.  You’re going to hurt someone’s feelings.  Do you want me to hold your hand too?  I mean, people get upset about things that don’t even relate to them!  They take offense in things that don’t bother the people who are actually affected!

Check out this article: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/296783-the-wussification-of-america-how-hypersensitivity-distorts-perception

As the author states, “We have become so damn sensitive in our continued pursuit of equality that we are beginning to tip the scales toward isolative advantage for the easily offended.”  And it’s so true.  But, how could it be then we are so desensitized and hypersensitive at once?

It’s all interrelated, I think.  It’s all about freedom.  It’s all about expression.  It’s all about manners and how we present ourselves in society.  And a lot of it has to do with how the media reacts to certain tidbits of information and how it regurgitates others.  The cure?  There may not be one.  This divergence might continue until it is a division.  But, in the meantime, we can strive to practice full openmindedness, avoid judgment and hypocrisy, and not take personal offense to someone practicing his or her freedom of speech which we have struggled to protect for each and every last one of us.

Fear not the future and have faith in the country to which you have chosen to devote yourself in exchange for your freedoms, freedoms which you should protect for your own sake as well as others.  Peace.