Awakening to Privilege

Sumner McCallie, Academic Dean at McCallie School, was asked to reflect on his summer 2014 journey to Cambodia by Where There Be Dragons, the group with which he traveled. The following was included in their bi-annual publication.

boatsAs an educator who has led international trips for two decades, I have watched countless students confront the reality of their American lifestyle and wealth compared to the situations of the local folks with whom we have worked to build homes or dig wells or preserve forest resources. I have seen students figuratively, and occasionally literally, stopped dead in their tracks in shock at the daily challenges our new friends face to find food or firewood or freedom.

I want my students shocked out of their innocence. I want my students forced to question the random luck of the draw that has placed them in privilege and power. It is vital they see how extraordinary that position actually is, and how dramatic a difference it makes in their lives, one over which they had no control being given, but which nevertheless benefits them in ways they have never before considered.

That part is easy; almost any trip can provide shock and awe. An initial ride from an airport through the capital of most any majority country invariably stuns the first time traveler: the pot-holed roads on which lanes mean nothing as bicycles and tuk-tuks and trucks weave their way through intersections with no stop signs or lights; streets that turn from asphalt to dirt with any turn off the main route; wooden market stands which line lanes where oranges and passion fruit are sold next to sink parts and plastic toys by moms with half naked kids running after homemade flywheels; open air markets where anything and everything can be bought to sustain those on the barest of margins.

host father village elderBut that is not where I want to leave students. Shock is a reaction, not a progression. Awareness necessarily spawns guilt, but leaving individuals in such a space only paralyzes. The power of the trip lies in directing the next steps.

Without direction, my experience dictates that there are two typical responses to facing this world’s truths of inequity. The first is simply defensive judgment: ‘Those people had it coming. They remain poor because they can’t figure out how to change their trajectory.’ As appalling as it is ignorant, this response reeks of a guilt-induced need to separate from reality in an attempt to preserve the self by confusing situational context with human-created difference. I believe that such isolation from humanity only leads to conflict, internal and external. It is a destructive dead end, personally and for the world.

A second response is a call to action, one almost always pursued without depth of research. This seems most common: fundraisers to send the village’s daughters to school, money sent to buy materials to dig additional wells, letters written demanding a local government recognize its corruption. Unexamined, emotionally driven good intentions generally leave the fundraiser feeling good about results that actually have changed nothing at best, or caused dangerous expectation and upheaval at second best. Though trying to ‘right a wrong,’ the focus erroneously assuages the concerns of the minority world traveler, simultaneously completely missing the larger contexts of the majority world need.

Neither response works. There is, however, a third alternative. On the recent Dragons’ Educator trip to Cambodia, my group met with first- generation college students to hear their stories of courage to leave their village to pursue a degree. We had dinner with founders of a start-up forging ahead with a newly designed product. We heard from a husband and wife managing an ecotourism venture. We walked through a four story building housing an up and coming ethical fashion business, with 50+ employees who otherwise might have been unemployed or working in a garment factory.

The point: we saw emerging success, driven and sustained by locals who perceived their challenges as surmountable, even if difficult. We saw the complexity of issues and the courage of people trying to untangle a strand at a time. Simply stated, we saw tangible hope.

temple facesHope allows for movement. It breaks the paralysis of exposed privilege. Seeing success on the ground in the midst of the harsh inequity creates space to reconcile a life lived in prior ignorance with a life blown wide open by the needs of the world while not collapsing under the strain of the new vantage point.

This is how I want to direct my students: not to ignore or misguidedly try to compensate for their happenstance position, but rather to recognize common humanity, to value the deep exploration required to comprehend their world, to identify specific examples of hope, and to commit to learning about the difference they can make, not in one easy trip, but in a life which adopts the mantra expressed most clearly by the head of the ethical clothing company who offered a clear response to my question, “Why do you do this?” She said rather matter of fact, “Because of the position of privilege and power into which I was born, I have the freedom to take much greater risks to study, to listen, to understand, and then to act.”

To provide a way for my students to arrive at this concept—that defines a successful trip.

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