I’ve been swamped with volunteer work in social justice organizations for the past few weeks since coming back from our seminar abroad. As my post have shown, the experience has not been the most positive one. Far too often I have seen young women taking advantage of other young women in the name of helping poor women, women of color, elder women, queer women, etc. As I said in a previous post, the idea is that “if you really care” you will foot the agency bill for an endless amount of labor and associated costs. And I have publicly questioned exactly who is served by this exploitation since neither the line staff nor the clients are able to function at their best under such demanding circumstances and scarcity models. Perhaps it is because it has been so much in my face lately, I have really begun to question the social service industry as an Industry or Institution rather than a helping agent for change. This, more than any other feminist conflict I have witnessed in the past 4 years of blogging has made me rethink what feminist activists involved in critical fields of women’s services are really contributing to the end of oppression of women, especially the most marginalized among us.
Then I read this post:
Hmmmm, I gave the cashier a $20. I looked in my rear view mirror and there were no more cars to pay for. So, $3.18 for my good deed of the day felt a little lack luster. …
When I make these gestures I rarely look back to see the reaction. … But this time? No such luck. I was stopped by two traffic lights in a row and she caught up with me by the second light. She rolled down her window. She searched my face for some recognition. She found none. “Thank you for this,” she said, “You don’t know what this means to me. I’m on my way to an interview. I lost my job a month ago and I HAVE to find work. I’d given these up,” and she raised her cup, “but I decided to splurge today for a little boost of confidence. Your kindness has done so much more.”
I could see that her eyes were brimming and she was fighting back tears. …
This woman’s act of kindness, done primarily out of guilt for not keeping a promise to herself to pay it forward regularly, profoundly changed one woman’s day for the cost of a cup of coffee. It may have helped change her life, by providing her the confidence in herself and in others that most of us lack these days in a world of selfishness and economic uncertainty. Who is to say?
The story reinforced my larger questions about social service agencies and their role in social justice and social change even as they dismantled them. On the one hand, this woman was able to do something I have not seen many line staff be able to do at some of the places I have been working with precisely because she was neither overworked nor underpaid to provide care to others. Her actions came from a desire to do good that was untainted by the fact doing good had become a job in which “there are only so many hours in a day” and a pittance of pay for them. And I do think that money and work are the major distinctions here because I hope that everyone that goes into social service work, especially feminists, are motivated by doing good (even when their definitions are not the best). But I think something happens when doing good is your job and not your calling; something ultimately switches off for you as you work and work and work some more for very little pay and even less institutionalized support. By creating a social service system that depends on your “commitment to the cause” and actively interprets your need for self-care, boundaries, and compensation for work done as a “lack of commitment” justice becomes part of an industrial complex in which funders get tax right offs and young, largely middle class and white, women get training and activist credibility.
At the same time, these agencies are not devoid of value to service seekers. Individual clients get an array of services that help them as individuals but do not actually challenge the system that made them seek out services in the first place. Thus, social service is self-perpetuating and it goes unquestioned in many ways because of the number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly changed (and even saved) through service. In this way, the woman who paid for the coffee and her amazing impact on the women who received it are still metaphors for the larger service industry. An individual woman did good with the limited resources she had available to her and an individual woman was moved in ways that may reverberate throughout the rest of her day or even her life. How do we quantify the impact? Should we? And if you answered we cannot and should not, then what does that mean for creating equitable work and value in social service for workers which as I argued before translates to better and more thorough service for service seekers?
I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. In an ideal world, each of us would operate from a place of radical love with one another, sharing our resources, knowledge, and strength in a way that honored our interconnectedness rather than demeaned. We would recognize that need is relative and that individuals with abundance in some areas have need in others just like everyone else. In that world, there would be no need for social service because we would see someone stumble and collectively help them up without blame or shame or stigma or even self-interest. But we do not live in that world. We live in this one, where banks steal from mom and pop accounts to give to jet-setting CEOs, medical providers quantify the value of lives because insurers care less about whether you are healthy than how much you will cost them, poor people and indigenous people are asked or simply told to foot the cost of businesses environmental degradation, and people move jobs and industries out of a country hurting for employment because they cannot exploit the labor, children, or reproductive and sexual rights of their workers or pollute the land unchecked, and they care more about profit than they do about people. In this world, where tv hosts and so-called journalists extol the rights of the rich to go on vacations, buy million dollar garbage cans, and everyone gawks at the latest celebrity craze, very few people care or help anyone so whole industries have grown up to do what we as a people have failed to do. And those industries require money to run. And that money is stretched so thin that the workers at the bottom work 80+ hour weeks, paying for phone bills, food, printing costs, etc. for the agencies for whom they work out of pocket for less money than the people at the top who get paid 3xs as much, work just as hard, but move on to middle class lives after a while never once thinking about the line staff who do not. And so we are back at the beginning.
I welcome your thoughts.
- “China Blue”/unattributed/portable.tv
- “Women Gardening”/Deb Vest/2010