The Blog

Responding to the Savior Industrial Complex: Check the Help and Free Yourself! (Part II)

Speaking from the position of "them and those," a position I remember all to well, I say...Check the help, and free yourself!
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In disciplines such as social work and community organizing and activism, you encounter individuals and paradigms that leave you wondering if the ideals and mores stressed via academic theory and marketing strategies were nothing more than a trick to get you involved in a carefully crafted ruse of the exploitation of others. What good are theories and much-heralded strengths-based formulas bandied about in organizational literature if they're all but non-existent in the real world? How many times have you heard about the individual or agency charged with supposedly helping (in theory) a demographic ultimately proving to be "part of the problem?" For sure, one can often enter a setting thinking it is solution-oriented, only to realize true "solutions" would render such a setting extinct. From the water cooler, to the desk one occupies, to the colleagues one shares a workload with, to one's salary, everything seems predicated upon the continued hope that there will always remain victims (Yeah, I said it, and, yes, I'm cynical of those charged with "helping").

I have been somewhat surprised at the number of "public servants" who seem overly invested in their personal egos (There's that naiveté, again). So, I say, and many may disagree, but like the political realm, many in the "helping" professions are chock-full of those overly invested in the misery of others. More often than not, they show up in the form of "the help." You know, those who appear as the pansophical saviors to us all, those who tell us exactly what ails us, those who won't allow us to heal (even when there's no healing to be done) until they say so, those who are interested in becoming the go-to person for a particular issue, the ones who utter "Why wasn't I consulted or invited to participate?", while undermining or belittling the efforts of those who sincerely mount any type of plan of action, but fall short of their standard of what it is to be an expert. To those for whom the shoe fits, I say: Ain't nobody got time for that!

So often, I have the occasion to attend events where consummate do-gooders gather to talk about what they're doing to save poor unfortunate souls. With vocabularies that certainly represent their academic pedigree, five-hundred dollar words are tossed about, while poor unfortunate souls are discussed at length. In these conversations, I'm always struck by how much attention to detail is paid to the strategic actions taken not necessarily on behalf of those we're charged with serving, but on behalf of our own egos and desire for professional ascension. I'm always reminded at such events that outside of the comfort of being completely in control over others (read: clients or poor unfortunate souls -- you must say this in full Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" voice), these people would have absolutely nothing to do with the people they profess to care so much about.

Although funders, constituents and the general public will often stress the importance of individuals and organizations collaborating to best utilize limited resources in committing to be of service to a demographic, many in the world of feel-good work will tell you that collaboration, or a collaborative spirit truly steeped in altruism as fueled by a love and respect for those we serve, seems to be a rare occurrence. So often, egos intercede and hamper any process that might give credence to the phrase "strength in numbers." It seems many would prefer to execute mediocre programming and projects over something truly special for the sake of using words like "I, me, my and mine." Those who champion a collaborative spirit often find themselves frustrated and burnt out; burnt out because it's usually on their backs that the ego of one or a few are fed, while the interests of those supposedly being served are starved. In the desire for an individual or organization to finish first, we often forget that it's our constituents who finish dead-last, if they're able to finish at all. I think almost every community activist/organizer has heard the following: "Only I, only we, only this organization can help, teach, guide and save. We are the experts! They don't know what they're doing."

One-dimensional desires to "save" seem to work their way into all social change movements. The danger is when this manifests into a very controlling dynamic where a select few feel as if they "own" a people, a cause or movement, and only they are equipped to speak on their behalf; and only they are capable of advocating for them. Because my very existence renders me a part of the very communities many are charged with helping, I've, for the most part, resisted approaches to "them and those" people which resemble condescension and superiority. That said, I, like many, have had to unlearn the savior complex (often delivered to us in those fine institutions of academia and other realms) so that I could be part of real, meaningful, sustainable strengths-based movement.

In finding absolute value in this desire to change, I often encourage both the "help" and "those" we are charged with serving to adopt a new mentality in how we view ourselves. In dynamics represented by our relationships with any organization or movement, the role of leader should be a fluid one -- one where clients, consumers, patients or participants demand their strengths be acknowledged, respected and celebrated, with the help never allowing difficulties to diminish their light while reducing them to a term no one likes: victims. For the help (including myself), I encourage a stance that is less dependent upon "saving," and more aligned with the principles of standing in solidarity. Avoiding language like, "I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves," is a great place to begin. I mean, think about it, everyone has a voice which means a capability to communicate. Maybe, we're not listening. Phrases like "I speak for those..." creates an atmosphere that allows such a sentiment to manifest into something very dangerous, something where we end up doing more harm than good; something where we reinforce power balances and re-victimize "the victims." When we recognize our mere thoughts and words as nonsense, we then can become hopeful that we'll thwart or halt an onslaught of actions that, while satisfying our desires to save (quite intoxicating and addictive), perpetuate a drunkenness of misery among those we're supposedly helping. Speaking from the position of "them and those," a position I remember all to well, I say...Check the help, and free yourself!