Today, a woman got on the train with her little girl and a baby in a stroller. It was obvious that the woman was furious. She was screaming at and pushing the little girl. It was pretty obvious that she was about one cross eyed look from her kid away from smacking the little girl. It was one of those moments where everyone feels like they should do something but no one knows what, or when. I smiled at the little girl and tried to figure out what I would do if things escalated the way they seemed they would- which is basically what everyone else on the train car seemed to be doing.

An older woman had gotten on the train one stop before and the woman and her kids happened to sit next to her. She watched them for a full subway stop as things seemed to get worse.

And then she asked the woman in Spanish, “the rain is awful isn’t it?” The woman didn’t answer but she stopped yelling. “I hate the rain”, the older woman continued. “It can make everything look so awful. Difficult too, especially with a stroller, isn’t it?” Finally the woman looked at her and nodded. The older woman continued, “it puts me right in a bad mood. Makes me upset about everything.” The woman smiled and the little girl switched to the other side of the pole so she could sit closer to the older woman.

The older woman went on to compliment the woman on the beauty of her children, to talk about her own kids, to ramble on about anything but what had happened when they got on the train, and to subtly pull the woman out of her bad mood. When they got off the train, the little girl offered the older woman one of the sticky candies she had been holding in her little hand the whole time. She then turned to a handful of people who had smiled at her and said, “bye!” to each one. Her mom still wasn’t all that happy with her but the intense fury was gone.

We cannot underestimate the power and wisdom community elders possess. Anyone on that train could have tried to talk to that mother and it is highly unlikely she would have responded in the same way… because it is just as likely that many of us would have brought our own biases and assumptions to the conversation, ruining the entire effort.

Arguably, this is something even more important to remember when engaging across borders and cultures. There is a very real obsession with “saving” the world these days. Missions, charities, short term volunteer projects, and western style schools. Most stem from a place of good intentions and most leave a wake of destruction in their path.

Destruction? Isn’t that a little harsh?

Well, what would you call a shift in respect and trust from community elders to outsiders with fancy degrees? What would you call deliberately teaching young people that the ways of their elders are “backwards”, uneducated, ignorant, or just plain wrong?

I see it every day, in the US and abroad. Well meaning people plop themselves into communities that are not their own and forget to listen and learn. Instead they import a whole host of ideas on how the community has been doing it wrong, how things can be “fixed” through religion, a specific type of education, and outside (i.e. white) influence.

Before you assume that I’m just throwing around a bunch of judgement on a topic I don’t understand, I’m going to confess something to you. I was one of those well-intentioned people.

I’ve worked with inner city kids, usually through volunteer organizations, for almost my entire life. I can’t stand the oppression those kids face, it fills me with a frustration I can’t even describe. I loathe racism. I think it’s horrifying that they sit in classrooms without even a full class set of books while million dollar playgrounds are built uptown. So, I directed plays, taught dance, and babysat, free, for more kids than I can count. I applied and was accepted to teach in one of those “well meaning” teacher programs in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I loved them all. But I did not serve them all.

Somewhere along the way, I bought into the idea that equality means everything looks the same. I convinced myself that a certain type of education would “pull these kids out of poverty”. I was sure that if I just tried a little harder, I could “fix” something for one of those kids. I assumed their “circumstances” (i.e. their communities and environments) were pulling them down without finding out what the heck that even meant. In that way, I failed them.

As I struggled in a system that I couldn’t stand and yet was unwittingly perpetuating, I was eventually asked to blatantly disrespect the authority and position of my student’s parents. The people who gave birth to them, cared for them, feared for them, and did everything they could to protect them were to be purposely cut out and denied their rights in an effort to make things easier for those who “knew better”. I knew their rights, many of them did not. It would have been quite easy to do what was asked of me, but I couldn’t. Something I didn’t quite understand yet felt very, very wrong. So, I quit.

I still couldn’t grasp at what was really bothering me but I knew I couldn’t keep on with what I was doing. I changed focus, pursued my masters in a new area- Social Sciences with a focus on UN Studies and Children’s Rights. I traveled to India to work with UNICEF. I was sure I would find a better fit in international development.

What I found was more of the same.

I was assigned to a team researching the barriers to education for specific rural populations in a small area of India. We were two Indian students and two foreigners. We walked for miles everyday, interviewing the parents and community elders about anything and everything that might get in the way of them sending their children to “proper” (i.e. western designed) schools. We put our findings in a paper and presented it. Few of our findings matched the assumed barriers UNICEF had briefed us on. We were challenged. A senior, white, American, UNICEF official (who had been in India no more than six months) publicly denounced everything we wrote, claiming the people we spoke to weren’t able to articulate the “real” reasons they didn’t send their children to school. Our paper was never published, we were told we were “naive” to believe the people we spoke to. Apparently, they weren’t educated enough to know their own minds.

An American in India

I don’t know when I began to really see the damage all of these “good intentions” were doing, but I know this is where it started. From Brooklyn to India, no one seemed to want to talk to these kids, parents, and communities to find out what they needed, what they wanted, and what they could bring to the table. Everyone wanted to impose something- rules, laws, expectations, higher “bars”- but no one wanted to work with these communities.

As much as I cared about them, I am still coming to grips with the ways I failed those kids I worked with. I’m still realizing the ways I undermined their parents and their communities. I wish I had known better. But I do now, and I try to do better. That means no short term volunteer programs, no buying the “good intentions” excuses, and absolutely, unequivocally, no mission trips.

Obviously, I still believe in cultural exchange and our traveling isn’t coming to an end anytime soon. But I’ve stopped positioning myself as someone who can “fix” anything. What I can do is listen, learn, and lead a hand when I am asked to by people in the community who simply know what they need and want better than I do.

When we fail to engage community elders, when we assume people are too “backward” to know what they need, when we decide that we know better than them by virtue of our privilege, when we force a specific vision of education, development, and “need” on a community without their input, we are raping these communities of their dignity and their self-worth. You can excuse it however you please but that isn’t help, it’s cultural homicide- and it’s happening at an alarming rate.

On that train today, I felt such gratefulness for the presence of a woman, a Brooklyn “community elder”, who could have a “private” conversation with a mother who was at her breaking point and could bring her back from the edge in just the right way. I felt honored to have witnessed something so simple and yet so incredibly huge. She did not try to “save” the mother from herself, she did not lecture her, she did not even point out what she was doing “wrong”. Intelligence comes in all forms, it is not reliant upon a degree, an acronym, or a full body of work. Today intelligence was embodied by a woman who knew just what to say, at just the right moment, in just the right way. Intelligence was also embodied by everyone on that train who kept silent vigil and held the space for her to do what she could do. Imagine what would happen if all the people with “good intentions” held space, listened, learned, and stopped pushing so hard.