Stop Labeling Do-Gooders As White Saviors
Leila Janah

I applaud your effort to move beyond the culture of those aspiring to do good tearing other people aspiring to do good apart. While critical reflection and discussion is important, constantly dismissing others isn’t productive.

Your point that young people — any people, really — have to start learning about the world before they can commit to contributing positively to it is a good one. But, we often fall far short of the learning we need to do before we begin taking action. The historical, political, and cultural contexts of any community can take a lifetime to understand. The systems that create injustice, oppression, and unsustainable consumption are vast and complicated. And the philosophy undergirding conceptions of what is considered “good” vs “bad” is neither settled nor easy to understand.

If we want to catalyze young people to create meaningful change, we must offer a more rigorous preparation for this work. We run the risk of causing harm when we act in communities that aren’t our own, no matter the color of our skin, our class, or our gender. For that matter, we hold those same risks in our home community, too. To bring all of the above learning together into the lifetime pursuit of critical consciousness needed to be a proactive agent of change requires not just new experiences, but a new learning process.

We need to help students adjust to a world where learning isn’t about finding answers to questions, but about developing understanding to ask deeper questions. We need to help students not just to value diversity, but to also recognize and relate to what is common in the human experience. We need to help students find purpose and direction not just by identifying problems to solve, but also by critically reflecting on their deepest held beliefs and assumptions about their place in the world.

These things happen best when we leave our home communities. But, they don’t happen because we leave our home communities. Students should visit the many countries of the continents of Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific, and Europe. They should also visit the communities they don’t yet know in their own neighborhood. But, they should go with the disposition, tools, and support to be there to start the lifelong learning they need if they are to have a hope of being do gooders.

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