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Monday, January 23, 2017

Charity, Marches, and Zadie Smith's Swing Time

I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell. - Zadie Smith, Swing Time
When I was young, my church youth group organized a Sub for Santa event. These are pretty commonplace now, but at the time it was a bit of a novelty and as a society we had not yet ironed out all of the kinks. We met in a room that was soon flooded with toys. Dirty stuffed animals, a bag filled with McDonald's toys, clothes. It looked like the pile of things a thrift store has rejected. We were set to organizing by category, and then each pile was hastily put in a cardboard box and wrapped.

Then, as a massive crowd, we showed up unannounced at a neighbor's house with all of these gift wrapped boxes and a Christmas tree. We were allowed in and everyone was shaking hands and wishing Merry Christmas and the whole deal. We had a tree that we brought in, even though they already had a tree, and then we left, congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

I've thought back on that day a lot and the older I get the more mortified I am by the position we put that family in. I imagine my own young family, when someone decided we were poor enough to qualify for someone's "Twelve Days of Christmas." It was embarrassing, but also kind of fun. Every day there was a new small gift on the doorstep. They were all new and high quality, and the last day there was a $20 bill and you guys, at the time (and let's be honest, still), that was a really nice thing to get. Imagine, though, if instead of secret, it was a crowd of the neighborhood teens coming into my tiny house and dropping off box after box of broken, dirty, and cheap toys. Imagine sitting there that Christmas morning and watching your children open these boxes, their imaginations full of possibility, to find an entire box filled with broken McDonald's toys?

With that adult knowledge I don't feel great about it. I imagine that those parents, already stressed and worried and overworked, did not terribly appreciate the task of sorting through all of that stuff to find something worth keeping. I'm sure they were embarrassed to have everyone be made aware of their struggles. Did they have to waste gas and time to make a drive to the thrift store to get rid of the rest, pile it in the corner, or just throw it away?

This is one of those formative moments people talk about and I don't realize I've had until I start to think about it. It has influenced my take on charity ever since. If you follow me on Facebook you know that for the last two years I've organized a wish list for a new refugee family. I've been a little cautious about who I invite into the group, and have been pretty strict about what we donate. The first year, I had some folks drop off some old and obviously used toys and offers to donate their old tube tv that's sitting in the basement that they can't legally throw away and they don't want to pay for the fee at the landfill to dispose of it. Those things didn't make it to the refugees.

Both years we've gotten them a nice, brand-new laptop and a good-sized HD TV. We've gotten them brand-new bikes. And toys and pots and pans and kitchenware and a whole bunch more. My request, when I asked the absolute saints who have contributed, was to give new stuff, but if it was used, it better be good enough that you would give it to your boss's kids or spouse. Everyone delivered in spades. It's been just an amazing experience and I love everybody who participates. Let me be so clear in saying that this post is not about you.

I imagine this might make some people uncomfortable. At the time of the most recent donation drive our only working computer was (and still is) one with the fan broken. If I'm going to use it for extended periods of time, I put an ice cube tray underneath it to prevent it from overheating and shutting down. I'm doing pretty well, though! My quality of life, in comparison to the worldwide standard, is astonishingly high. If I can get by with a broken computer, why should these refugees who have no other option get a new one? It's better than nothing, right?

In our little refugee sponsorship, better than nothing is not the goal. What I imagine might be some liberal bleeding heart fairy tale nonsense, but it keeps me going. It's this: a refugee coming to our country hears a lot about their status here. They hear about the danger they pose, the worry of moms and dads whose kids share a school with them, they hear about the men who were caught planning to bomb a building full of Somali refugees. A child who doesn't know english starts school and is whispered about and outright shunned. Then, around some holiday you probably don't even celebrate, some strangers show up and give you this crazy bounty. It's not used stuff or hand-me-downs, or the kind of free stuff you get from the government that doesn't have labels and may or may not be cheese. Nope, it's a rad tv and computer and a hand-held video game system and shoes with Kylo Ren on them that light the freak up. Hopefully that kid remembers that day, and when things are stacked up against her and she's confused and having a hard time fitting in, she watches that tv or does her homework or watches funny cat videos on YouTube and realizes that the part of the world she lives in is a very, very small part of it. Hopefully she feels welcome.

I'm not trying to toot my own horn here because I feel that toot is, in general, a very unfortunate term. I'm not trying to blow my own... hmm, that's not much better. I'm not trying to fart in my own brass instrument here, but it's very important that you know that in addition to helping refugees, I volunteer at the women's shelter. Contact me and I'll tell you where to send all of my ally cookies. I hope that they come in an aluminum tin, to be honest. I love those things.

The reason why I bring this up is because often my job is to pick up and sort donations. It's great that people donate. It's so amazing and that place wouldn't run as well as it does without it. That being said, not all donations are useful. If you, or your church youth group, or your family, or your business wants to donate to anybody, please ask first. One of the things I end up doing all of the time is breaking apart hygiene kits. What this means is that because service needs to have hours (for some reason), we create busy work for kids who need to earn those hours. So you buy a big box of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, deodorant, feminine hygiene products, etc. Then for an hour or so everyone puts them into nice plastic bags.

Here's what happens next: I show up at the shelter and I open all of the bags and sort everything back into boxes because nobody needs a hygiene kit. Everyone just grabs what they need from a cabinet where everything is nice and sorted because I sorted it. That is if there is room in the cabinet. There actually is a point where one can have too many toothbrushes. There are only so many teeth, is what I'm saying.

I don't get worked up about the hygiene kits. I don't get that mad because I put in headphones and listen to podcasts and I like busywork. Maybe there are places where hygiene kits are great. Those places would be so excited to get them. That's why you call first. "Hey do you like these hygiene kit... whoa. Ok. You don't. OK. I got it. Wow, that's a bad swear word. How about I just send money?"

Here's what does annoy me: sometimes we get people dropping off literal garbage. Dirty bras, toilet paper tubes (they're supposed to be toys - listen, that place is generating plenty of toilet paper tubes on its own, thanks), clothes with holes in them. I know you're trying to be nice, but the shelter isn't the last stop for the junk in your house. These women like to look nice. Most people do! They have job interviews. They go to church. They like to give new toys to their kids. Kind of like you and me! In fact, the women in the shelter are just like you and me. They come from the same community, and often the exact same background. Put yourself in that spot for just a second. You've finally gotten away from a horrible situation that may have been life threatening. It's weird and unfamiliar and you have to share your space with strangers and your kids are acting up. You're in survival mode, sure, but you want to be treated like a human being.

The idea that because someone is in a situation where they need charity, we can just foist nonsense on them and pat ourselves on the back misunderstands a lot about the situations they are in. You're heart is in the right place, you guys! You're so close. But sometimes so close is worse than nothing at all.

I'm writing this the day after the big women's march all over the world. It was inspiring and amazing and the signs were often funny. In between seeing these people I like posting their pictures of all of these happy, smiling (let's be honest, mostly white) women, I also saw posts from people who were hurting. I don't mean the whiny men who don't want women walking down a street if they can't catcall them, or everyone who forgot all of the terrible bumper stickers that were on their car about Obama for the last 8 years, I mean fellow progressives. Trans women wanted to point out that not all women are going to find the pink hats inclusive. Women of color see this sea of white women and wonder where they were during the Black Lives Matter marches, or at Standing Rock. They see that the same injustices they've suffered for years while being ignored are just now being noticed because they affect white women.

Was that your intention when you marched? Probably not. I know a lot of you who marched and I'm proud of you and I'm just astonished at the turnout. I've gone back and forth on this issue one million times in the last two days, and that's amazing because if you counted to a million, one number per second, it would take two weeks! Imagine how many times my mind changed! Every facebook post had me like ah dang that's a good point.

I've sat on that for the last two days and I still can't see all of it. I think it's amazing that 2-5 million women were able to see that they are not alone in their fight for rights and respect. There is so much potential there. But I've got to listen to those who are hurting, too. Have I come up with any concrete conclusion? I have not. But I think that if we ignore the voices who make us feel uncomfortable we're just as bad as the "activists" who get online to mock the genuine concern people have about our new president by telling us to cry in our special snowflake participation trophy big girl panties government funded cry rooms. If this movement is going to go anywhere, we need to listen. And not after the fact, when the proverbial hygiene kits are already delivered.

It all comes back to one thing: ask first. Do you want to march for all women, not just the ones who look like you? Ask. Do you want to do something for the women's shelter, or homeless shelter, or soup kitchen? Just ask. Give them a call first. The needs are constantly changing. One day they might have 3 baby boys in the place and no clothes, but two weeks later it's all toddlers and we're running out of things to wipe off snot with. There's not enough space to stockpile everything they could possibly need, so some of it just goes to the thrift store anyway. The time I spend running errands to the various charities in town passing on stuff we don't need is time I could be spending playing with kids so that their moms can get a shower, or take a nap, or have a therapy session. Do you want to espouse a cause? Travel to another country and do some good? Help someone in your neighborhood? Ask first.

Now if you're like me, even when we're struggling with our personal stuff and really need help, will say no if someone says is there something I can do. It's the hardest thing in the world. If you want to help someone nearby who you know personally, you listen and pay attention and you try to guess what they need. That's all great. Do that. This only applies to organizations.

Aside: this is is a worthwhile conversation about our inability to ask for help (Google Brene Brown "Are you judging...")

Anyway, I'd already been thinking about this stuff a lot before I started reading Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. And it was one of those nice coincidences where literature mirrors real life. In the book, we follow the unnamed main character as she reflects on the life that led to the present mess she's in. It bounces back between her relationship with her mercurial and gifted friend Tracey, and her current job as the assistant to a Madonna-style mega pop star, Aimee. Aimee gets it in her head that she wants to build a girls' school in an African village, and the main character ends up taking on a lot of the responsibilities after Aimee gets bored.

Everyone's heart is in the right place, but there are unforeseen consequences of taking on a community project in a world that is unfamiliar. For example, it becomes apparent that the building of the school has attracted the nation's government. Either because the president resents the western interference or thinks that the village no longer needs their help, the government stops updating infrastructure and providing services. The village suffers from lack of water and electricity. The boys in the village are resentful that they have to go to the old school, which now gets the least engaged teachers and no funding. The money flowing into the village breeds corruption, and the impression of favoritism, which splits up families and friendships. That's not to say that the school isn't a profound benefit to the village, it's just tricky.

Last night we attended a talk by a woman in the community who has worked in various refugee camps in Jordan and Greece. One thing she wanted to emphasize is that we need to stop saying that something is "better than nothing." Instead, ask "Is this the best we can do?" When Haiti was ravaged by earthquake, the United States sent millions of pounds of rice. This was great for starving people, but destroyed the local economy, driving the price of rice down to almost nothing and making beggars out of local merchants. Since then, the emphasis has increased on buying locally rather than stockpiling here and sending it all. Is it better to make a doll in your neighborhood and pay for the shipping and customs, or have representatives purchase supplies from local businesses, and host a doll-making event for the actual recipients, teaching them skills that could be useful as well as boosting the local economy.

I hadn't thought of it, but when I heard that I was halfway through this post. Whoa, you guys. You should feel lucky to be reading the product of this amazing confluence of events. In summary: don't stop trying to save the world. Don't be scared to march or reach out and help. Also, don't be defensive if you're efforts are interpreted poorly. Just listen. Say, "wow, I'd never thought of it that way," and then next time do better.

This is all daunting. Nobody expects any of us to do everything. Sometimes we feel so little in the big scheme of things. In the words of Matilda, "Even if you're little you can do a lot, you musn't let a little thing like little stop you." There's cool stuff waiting for everybody to just jump in. Even if the problems seem like an ocean.
"I don't know how you do it."
"Do what?"
"Deal with the drops when you can see the ocean."
"Another proverb! You said you hated them, but see how you've caught the local habit!"
"Are we having tea or what?"
"Actually it's easier," he said, pouring the dark liquid into my glass. "I respect the person who can think of the ocean. My mind no longer works that way. When I was young like you, maybe, but not now."
I couldn't tell any more if we were talking of the whole world, of the continent in general, or simply of Aimee, who, for all our good intentions, all our proverbs, neither of us seemed able to think of very clearly.
A common refrain from the presentation was to "look for the one." If we're focused on the ocean of poverty, oppression, and fear, it seems insurmountable. If we see the drops suddenly little solutions appear. If a lot of people focus on the one, those ones add up and become the whole. Just, you know, ask first.