It’s the second last hump day for the year and as we all gear up for the holidays - shopping, parties, etc - it’s also at this time of the year we think about giving to those who really need it.
Whether it’s giving your skills, your time or your cash, it can be hard these days to identify where your resources will best utilised. The debate goes on around social enterprise over charity, for-profit & not-for-profit and what place organised charities hold anymore in our hearts, minds and wallets.
In this vein, we have a guest blog for you from Cath McLennan who, on a recent trip to India, found she was grappling with that very question.
Catherine McLennan is a multi-passionate facilitator, writer, actor and sometimes philosopher. She currently works at the child advocacy not-for-profit, Berry Street where she works with 75 schools to research and implement programs to improve student wellbeing. She has facilitated over 40 workshops in schools with the Beacon Foundation designed to inspire & empower young people to follow their deepest passion. Catherine recently took a group of students to India for an international charity and rather than just her suitcase, found herself unpacking the concept of charity itself.
I’m not quite sure where I stand in the realm of charity…
Throughout my teenage and early adult life I’d always thought that every decent person should be working away to give back to those less fortunate. And while I work in the not for profit sector, I am still constantly questioning the mechanics of this world and how we make sense of it.
I’m reminded of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s argument about the hypocrisy of charity. (If you have some quiet post Christmas lunch minutes watch “First as Tragedy, then as Farce” on YouTube)
Zizek notes “I’m not against charity, in an abstract sense of course it’s better than nothing, (however) let’s be aware that there is an element of hypocrisy there.” The argument follows that we have incorporated charity into our capitalist system, where many of our purchases go towards ethical causes, and of course this makes us feel better, but he thinks that this will never overturn the causes of poverty in the first place.
Zizek claims that he is basically misanthropic whereas I have always erred on the bright side of life.
Still, I had Zizek’s thoughts in my mind, when I said yes to taking a group of Melburnian students to India to work on a community development project. Whilst I was excited about the prospect of travel I had some questions about the process. Free the Children, an international charity, runs trips for young volunteers from the US and Canada to go to India, East Africa, China, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Amazon. Hand Up Australia is a new organisation (partnering with Free the Children) that makes it possible for Australians to do the same thing.
Our project was to continue the work at a primary school two hours north east of Udaipur city in the beautiful tribal village of Barind. The school only has one classroom for all of the preps to grade 5s. Our mission was to build a second classroom for the kids (who were so cheeky and divine) and to lure skilled teachers to the village. For 12 days in the sweltering heat, we would mix and pour concrete. We were human mixers. I’ll never forget the recipe; 3 parts sand, 1 part concrete and water, mixed with shovels and Indian pick axes. After 12 days the floor was laid.
Free The Children have brokered support from some of the big guns, with celebrity ambassadors like Natalie Portman and Mia Farrow, corporate groups like Virgin Atlantic and backing from Oprah's Angel Network. (Rumour has it that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In was there three weeks before us.)
The critical point was that over there I got a real sense that there is something happening in the collective sphere urging us to look more deeply at our raison d'être and to make changes accordingly.
So what is my view on charity now?
I thought long and hard about all of this because sometimes us well intentioned white folk can do more harm than good. And while I do think Zizek presents an interesting argument, it certainly was an incredible trip, learning about the intricacies of Indian culture, and the long standing effects of the caste system.
On top of this - we had two beautiful cultural facilitators, who were so open about the complexities of their lives growing up in Udaipur that they also taught us as lot about, managing that fine dance I think we all battle with, between doing what your heart desires and the societal pressure to live up to certain roles.
Follow Cath on Instagram @Catherineomclennan