Friday, October 29, 2010

Why I Care (about developing countries)

I gave four, almost consecutive presentations at Oakland High about developing countries on Tuesday. I came to realize that I'm getting old and my daily life is pretty far removed from high schoolers. It's hard for me to think about what they know and what they don't know. There were moments when I didn't even realize they don't understand something that was seemingly obvious to me. Anyway, class periods are so short. I don't know how any teaching and learning get done. I really wish I had time to talk about "why we should care," especially with this group of students. I'll write about it here so that I can flush out my thoughts. Maybe I should have done this before going to talk at the school.

Honestly, I did not care about developing countries when I was in high school. I didn't care until probably senior year of college, when I did D-Lab. I felt that there were so many problems "at home" and that we should really focus our energies helping people in our own backyards rather than spending resources on people far away. It's so much harder to care about people far away.

That's one of the reasons why I joined ESP, actually. I volunteered with a bunch of different organizations freshmen year, all of them focusing on outreach to nearby communities. I stuck with ESP even though there wasn't a whole lot of underprivileged outreach because the people who ran the program were cool. I consciously and unconsciously avoided all the talk, hype, and clubs that involved global poverty issues. And then I did D-Lab.

I actually signed up for D-Lab because people who I went to Cambridge with were really enthusiastic about it. They talked about the program's uniqueness and that it's something you can only do while at MIT. So I went to the first class and wrote a pretty convincing application for the class and got in. I went to class and worked on the projects but still treated everything as a class. I mean, I cared about my project (rammed earth) a lot but I didn't feel its connection to society until I actually went to Sierra Leone.

At some point either during or after the trip to Sierra Leone, I had a realization that the problems we were trying to tackle were strikingly similar to problems "at home," namely income security, food security, education, shelter, and nutrition. The problems are the same, all having to do with basic human needs. The details are different but those always are. The question is, what about the solutions? How do the solutions differ?

I really believe that by traveling to different countries and experiencing other cultures, you learn much more about yourself and your own culture. I had many eye-opening moments while in Germany (my "first" abroad experience) about myself and the culture that I subscribe to. By putting myself in a places where I didn't know the language, don't understand the culture, and have no clue about the religion, I really appreciated the kindness and understanding of other people. I became much more aware of what "culture" is and the assumptions that people make about how life should be, how things should work, etc. I (would like to think) am much more sensitive to other people's needs because I have been in situations where I couldn't articulate my own needs.

Through these experiences, I realized that I can't necessarily relate to the situation "back home." I had thought that I understood the issues that immigrants to the US face. I thought that since I had experienced it first-hand, I would be best suited to help solve these issues. But after my travels, I realize that this is a false assumption. I really don't know what other people are going through and shouldn't try to pretend that I am an expert on their experiences. There is no one formula to alleviating the problems that are entrenched in underprivileged neighborhoods in the US. And the best people to work on solving those problems may not be people who had experienced them first-hand. While these people bring with them, some sort of assurance that they understand and care about the people that they are serving, they are also the most likely to "think outside the box."

I am much more likely to think "outside the box" (since I am coming from "outside the box") on issues pertaining to people in a different community than the one I grew up in. I don't deny that I would have different emotional attachments to projects involving Chinese Americans in the Bay Area vs. Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa. But I really believe that working on projects in the developing world has made me much more capable of working on problems in the developed world. They are, in essence, the same problems.

I wish that people working on problems at home can come in with the humble open-mindedness that is so important to international work. By going into a community and admitting right off the bat that I don't understand the culture, the people, and their problems, I have a lot more motivation to try to understand the situation before proposing solutions. I am much more sensitive to the real needs of the people rather than what I think they need. Again, this last point is relevant for projects everywhere.

I hope this made sense. It's something that I have been thinking about for the past few days. I certainly don't think I have it all correct. I would love to hear what other people think about this.

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