by Guest Contributor Catherine Traywick, originally published at Hyphen
My last column, about the ethical differences between charity and solidarity, was a heavy-handed critique of NYT Magazine’s “Saving the World’s Women” issue. Good criticism, however, ought always be tempered by practical suggestions for improvement. So, for this week, I’ve distilled the opinions of other critics, suggestions of notable theorists, and my own rich reserve of activist foibles into 3 simple (albeit wordy) tips for doing solidarity work the right way.
Tip #1: Realize that, no matter how much you know, you actually don’t know shit.
When Americans set out to work transnationally, we have a tendency to assume that our education, or experience, or even underprivileged upbringing makes us both “insiders” into other people’s struggles as well as qualified to tell them how to address it. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that a poli sci major, a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, and/or a stint as the president (and incidentally only member) of your local Amnesty International Chapter makes you qualified to be anything more than an asshole just shy of completing an undergraduate degree.
Third World activists, as well as scholars studying transnational activism, have long decried the Western tendency to speak for, over, and about people of the Third World under the seemingly benign mantle of “global sisterhood” or “global citizenship” or some other similar ideal that blurs the ethnocentrism of their efforts. The first UN Women’s Conference in 1975 is a well-known example of this conflict: many Third World participants took issue with the feminist manifesto drawn up by white American feminist Gloria Steinem, which had been touted as a common framework for action, but was crafted without input from Third World activists.
Eminent postcolonial and transnational feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty similarly made waves a decade later, when her 1988 essay, “Under Western Eyes,” deconstructed the ethnocentric and ironically paternalistic analyses of Third World women that was (and is) prevalent in Western feminist scholarship. Delia Aguilar, another feminist theorist hailing from the Philippines, similarly argues that there is no such thing as “international sisterhood” and talks at length in many of her books about her problematic interactions with well-intentioned but misguided scholars and activists who wrongly presume that their experiences in the west qualify them to speak on women’s issues elsewhere.
If you really want to be effective (as opposed to annoying, useless, and embarrassed), get over yourself. Listen before speaking, and pause before acting. To paraphrase Aguilar, you have to illuminate these power relations in order to make unity possible.
Tip #2: Place Yourself
After tucking away your personal ambitions and scaling back your ego to something both manageable and less offensive, the next step is to (re)locate yourself — to critically reconsider how your physical location in the United States, as well as your political, social, and economic contexts both inform your perspective as an activist and relate to the place and contexts of others. After all, solidarity isn’t about pretending that borders don’t exist, but about recognizing what those borders represent to you and to those with whom you seek to work. A good framework for “placing” oneself involves identifying sites of conflict and connection.
Identifying sites of conflict is about actively recognizing points of difference between you and those with whom you wish to collaborate. How are you and your collaborators differently privileged, and how might that impact the way you approach the work? To what sort of interests and outcomes do you feel personally attached, which might diverge significantly from those you wish to support? Identifying sites of connection, on the other hand, is about finding points of agreement/similarity and developing objectives that are broad enough so that all supporters and stakeholders can use their various resources most efficiently.
Consider the example of GABNET, a Filipina-American solidarity organization that supports the mission of the Philippine-based women’s organization GABRIELA. In their case, sites of conflict involved differing priorities, which had to be resolved by foregrounding the immediate needs of the stakeholders. As GABNET founding member Ninotchka Rosca told me, GABNET “could not move into divorce law advoacy — which it knew overseas women wanted and needed — for fear that would place certain alliances of its Philippines partners with religious institutions on uncertain grounds.” GABNET had to take a step back, compromising its own interests, in order to serve the interests of it partner. Moreover, the organizations are united by a broad focus on anti-imperialism (a site of connection), which enabled GABNET to support the movement by acting locally, while empowering GABRIELA to use the most advantageous methods given its own context. Anti-imperialism, with its links to both the first and third worlds, is an easy site of connection. The point is to identify issues that affect both parties, so that both parties can act in their respective contexts.
Tip #3: Do not marginalize your partners
Duh, right? Yeah, not so much. I’m probably more guilty of this one than most.
Some time ago, I received a rather large seed grant with which I started a nonprofit. The goal was to work in solidarity with a women’s cooperative in a US-Mexican border town to create income generation programs for women in the area. Noble idea. Less than noble outcome.
Our relationship with the co-op was complicated. Not a single person on our leadership team spoke Spanish. As a result, communication between our team and the co-op was difficult, at best, and impossible most of the time. Given the communication barrier, an equally significant geographical barrier, and the time constraints of our grant, we were “forced” to make a number of decisions on behalf of the co-op — decisions that they may or may not have agreed with had they the opportunity to do so. In addition, when the cooperative members learned of the size of our grant, many of them (admittedly) felt 1) compelled to accept the decisions we made “in their best interests,” and 2) impossibly indebted to us. While we earnestly wanted to “do good,” our accidental paternalism got the best of us, and spread into other areas of our operation, including (but not limited to) deliberately keeping information from the cooperative, when we were worried they would disagree, not understand, or lose faith in us. As a result we were always on guard and seemingly always part of an uphill battle to gain their trust (which we never did earn completely). Needless to say, our little nonprofit didn’t work out. I walked away less than a year into the project, when the leadership team refused to rectify what I saw as unethical practices and a modus operandi that violated the spirit of our mission.
That good work rooted in great intentions should devolve into something less than equitable isn’t so uncommon when solidarity is built on one party’s money and is characterized by a plethora of significant cultural and geographical barriers. Manisha Desai, co-author of “Women’s Activism and Globalization,” outlines a few common problems within transnational solidarities: 1) a tendency within these “solidarities” to inadvertently reproduce existing inequalities, as evidenced by the dominance of First World women in transnational work (as we did), and 2) the sustained dependence of Third World women on First World donors (like that of our partners). In other words, what we did without knowing it.
While I decided to use this story to illustrate tip #3, it’s pretty apparent that we broke all three of the above-mentioned tips. A better approach would have been to get over ourselves, acknowledge our weaknesses and barriers, be honest about our privilege and motivations and — in light of that — act in the best interest of the cooperative. For example, putting some people on the leadership team who wouldn’t have the same kinds of difficulties. People who spoke Spanish, for instance. People who weren’t white (or, in my case, Asian). People who were, in a million different ways, more relatable to the women of the cooperative. But we didn’t. Because it was our money and our project, and we were us. What do-gooding over-achiever hasn’t thought like that before? Sharing power is never easy, but in situations like this, it’s usually right.
So before you set out on your crusade to “save the world’s women” (or save the world’s anything), just try to keep in mind your place, try to be humble, and put others before yourself, even — especially — if you’re the one with the money.
(Image Credit: Flickr user Toban Black, used under Creative Commons License.)