Tom Price has built a career helping marginalized communities—from Native American tribes to hurricane-ravaged towns to locales facing the Ebola virus in Liberia. He warns himself, and us, against the temptation of the outside benefactor to imagine that, because we have resources and privileges, we also have the solution to a community’s problem.
We’ve all had experiences feeling like a fish out of water with a new group of people, at a new job, or in a new country. But have you found yourself getting special treatment in a new place instead? Getting access to a service you didn’t pay for, being offered something members of a local community wouldn’t have access to? Chances are it’s happened to you, and you may not have even noticed.
I’m David Yang, and today on Culturally Attuned we’re talking about privilege and power. Whether it’s our nationality, our race, our gender, our wallet or our academic degree, a lot of factors can offer us privilege. And as outsiders in a local community or new culture, these privileges can sometimes give us the sense that we know what’s best for others.
Tom Price knows these feelings well. He’s a co-founder of the community leadership network, Burners Without Borders, and he has wrestled with cultural humility and what he calls, “micro-temptations” throughout much of his career.
Today, we’ll consider lessons from a few of Tom’s stories from the field and learn how to get better at checking our privilege and reckoning with feelings of cultural superiority.
The nature of the work that I've done is across a bunch of different things. It's politics, policy, business advocacy and by definition you're trying to create shared experiences and shared perspectives and shared goals. So that requires finding ways to connect with people.
Currently I work in East Africa and when I travel there, I am intensely aware of the fact that as a white American, cis-gendered male, I am the default dominant person in all the environments that I operate in and it requires constant awareness to not take advantage of that.
It's all of the tiny little micro indulgences that are granted when you work in a culture that is more deferential to people in authority to not take advantage of that.
I spent several years working in Liberia, which is one of the most broken places in the world. In a 20 year span they had two civil wars and Ebola.
I went and worked there on and off including during the Ebola crisis half a dozen times over several years. And I was aware of it every single day all day long. And even the small things like for example, you’re driving down the road and it's hot and you want to cool down and your car doesn't have air conditioning. So we pull over into the parking lot of a five star hotel and I knew that I could just walk in the door. I could walk in the door and sit down in the lobby and maybe get a cool drink at the café or maybe they had like some fresh cucumber water. I could just get myself glass and I could sit there and use their WiFi and so forth.
And I knew they would never say a word to me and yet, colleagues of mine walking in behind me if they were more than a few steps behind me the security guard would stop them every time. My daughter calls me on it a lot, because she sees me doing it a lot. It's hard to … when it is so easy to take these little micro advantages. It's hard to catch all of them because I'm constantly in an environment where people are deferring to me and in large part that's because I'm … in addition to all of those things I'm also the expert or the person in charge, or the person who's running the project. And when you add that with a person who is by nature, prone to putting themselves in front of a situation and saying, “Okay, this is the direction that we're going to go” that's what I do. That's my work is trying to help bring people together around something and make something happen. It's really easy to get into a bad pattern of taking advantage of that and it requires constant awareness and checking yourself.
With the nonprofit Black Rock Solar, Tom has worked with Native American communities to install solar arrays on reservations. Tom shares with us what he learned from these collaborations.
When BlackRock Solar started working with the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, I don't want to pretend that I'm an authority on Native communities but they are, I think it's generally acceptable to say that they are a culture that is not as confrontational as ours and one that values listening and taking the time to be really inclusive in a way that can take a lot of time. And that act of hearing all the voices and letting everyone have a turn, it's time intensive, and it is also a culture that avoids direct confrontation; avoids direct conflict largely, and has also experienced an extraordinary amount of suffering due to the dominant white culture.
So how do you operate in that environment as that person where you're trying to do something good, you're trying to, I want to do something to help this community. First of all, you have to start with unwinding that assumption: Who are you to say that what you have is going to be of help? And I have been wrong many, many times about that because if it is not your culture, if it's not your community, if it's not your problem to solve, who are you to arrogate to yourself the right to offer a solution? There's no easy answers to that. Our experience with Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe was one with a lot of stumbles and learning and a lot of building trust. And it did take a lot of that time of sitting in tribal council meeting, hour after hour, listening to whatever issue happened to be of concern for them that day until the thing that you wanted to talk about came up. And taking the time to build the relationships with a wide range of stakeholders and answer anybody that wanted to ask what the questions were. That has also been my experience working in many places in Africa all over the continent.
People are really curious and they have, rightly, anxiety and concern about someone coming and telling them how they should live their lives, while at the same time knowing that it's possible to have extraordinary resources fall out of the sky if you talk to the mzungu in the right way.
Pulitzer Prize winning historian, anthropologist and geographer Jared Diamond has written extensively about human history. Tom describes how Diamond’s research informed his work as a humanitarian and activist.
We all know the story, Jared Diamond’s story, about their cargo cults in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, after first contact was made with the Australians. The Australians went in and set up an airstrip in New Guinea, and started bringing in planes that had all kinds of supplies on them. And local people in the communities later constructed out of bamboo and sticks, things that looked like air towers and that looked like the infrastructure they saw at that airport, thinking if they just signaled the right incantations to the gods, the cargo would come and land there too and all of the wonderful things would come out of the magic bird from the sky and land in their community.
And it's not far from the truth to say that if you say the right thing in the right way to the right person, extraordinary things can happen. Cargo cults exist all over the world. When we go into communities, we have to be acutely aware of that fact. And, again, that brings us back to where we started which is it's critically important to remember just how foundationally different your experience is in the world and the tools that are available to you if you are coming from this place of extraordinary privilege. And that requires deep, conscious, continuous humility to mitigate and to ward against because it's both profoundly unfair and it also perpetuates the false distinctions that economic disparity create when we allow those advantages that we have to separate us from other people, getting past that and finding moments of real and true connection are incredibly difficult. And it's all too common in experiences in the developing world or in communities of disparate economic and social standing for people to slip into the really easy default one, which is that I'm the person with the money and the opportunity and the answers and so therefore, you should listen to me. And that is profoundly destructive and it is a barrier that keeps us from really truly connecting with others.
There is this extraordinarily wide pyramid of all humanity. And then as you get toward the centre the slopes gets steeper and steeper and steeper until there's this infinitely tall little spire and at the very top of that spire is you, looking out over the whole of humanity. The things that you take for granted that you don't even realize you have are the things that billions of people aspire to have. You're so unbelievably fortunate to have the choices that you have and the resources that you have.
Don't take the idea that because you're in that position to be able to offer assistance to someone that that makes you special. That’s just the luck of the draw. I find that over and over again, people that work within Africa, smart, committed, passionate, intelligent, capable people who because of their circumstance barely get by. And that's not because of some default in their part, that's just luck of the draw.
In 2018, Tom joined a disaster relief mission in California, where a wildfire had ravaged the small community of Paradise. We asked Tom what he learned. In the face of such devastation and loss, where should we begin?
In November there was a terrible fire in Paradise, California, an entire community was burned to the ground and I felt moved to help organize a bunch of people to take a bunch of trailers and money and resources up there and did. And on the second visit, we were taking this convoy of RVs that we were going to donate to people and I had literally a pocket full of gift cards and the other pocket was stuffed with cash. And we pulled into the fairground in Gridley, California where hundreds of refugees were just sort of pouring out of the hills and being dumped into this soggy, wet, foggy smoky field.
And I was trying to figure out how to allocate these resources and walking around talking to people instead of being a person saying “Let me meet you where you are. Let me hear your story. Let me hear you process the grief that you're experiencing and then let's talk about, how I might be able to help.”
Instead, I allowed myself to get into a situation where people looked at me like an ATM machine. And so we were just mobbed with people asking for help and I was there. I remember asking one couple or that was lying on the ground like, oh, let me get you this shade structure put you in this thing. And what I realized later was I didn't stop and ask them if they needed a place to stay. I looked at them, saw where they were, assumed that I understood what their needs were and prescribed the solution and then I was kind of a little butt hurt that they didn't immediately jump up and thank me and make me feel good for offering them that resource. And that's because in that moment I was not a partner, not an ally I was a savior. And it's so easy to slip into that, you know, when you are holding a hammer everything looks like a nail. But the question you should be asking is not whether or not something is a nail. The question you should be asking is am I holding the right tool? Or is there another way that I can help?
And that comes when you slow down and take the time to get out of your own ego and the need to be gratified and whatever it is you're doing. And instead be humble about asking whether or not there is something that you can do, not can I do this thing for you but, is there a thing that I can do for you. Those are very different. One comes from a place of privilege and presumption and the other comes from a place of humility. And it’s only by meeting people in a place of humility that we're able to connect on equal grounds.
I mean, I've had this experience so many times where I've gone somewhere to do something to “help” and had, you know, a pocketful of money or a truck full of resources or whatever and presumed that because I had this hammer that they must have a nail for me to knock down.
And over and over and over again I have been humbled to realize that what people in need most often need is agency. Agency comes from being treated with respect and for being asked if there's a way that you can be of service.
So, to show respect for people, remember that the act of asking them about themselves and listening may be far more powerful than whatever aid you might have to give to them.
If you think that going somewhere and handing out a blanket or an MRE or something gives you the right to tell someone how to live their lives you need to find something else to do with your time because using that moment of privilege, power, it's no different than these American churches that go over somewhere and handout food aid but require someone to sit in a church and pray for 30 minutes, or these shelters here in town that require someone to get a lecture about God before they get a place to sleep for the night. It's extortion with a moral bow on it. And it's reprehensible, understandable perhaps, but reprehensible.
People in need, often most have a need to talk and to process because if they've lost their agency. So start with having the humility to ask about their situation and then listen.
How do we create and inculcate a culture that is inclusive and that allows people to be their best self and that starts with those of us who have the good fortune of privilege, being willing to remember that that is an accident of circumstance and that there are a million ways and ideas about how to solve the challenges that we have ahead of us. And just because of our position of privilege doesn't mean that we have a lock on the best ideas.
The role of a benefactor—with expertise and resources—can easily trap us into imagining we have answers to other people’s problems. Avoiding that pitfall starts with acknowledging our own culture and privileges. We also need to be aware of how different cultures relate to authority, and what role we can play to support community-driven outcomes.
What assumptions have you made about the education, talents and resources of people from different cultural backgrounds? How can you avoid making similar judgements in the future?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed; Jeffrey Helsing, Ph.D.; Kye Horton; Justine Ickes; Stuart Mangrum; Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang