Thursday, February 9, 2012

White Man's Solution

Every Wednesday, I attend the Neighborhood Action Council (NAC) meeting at Carlos Santana Arts Academy. This NAC is a part of a larger nonprofit community-building organization that works throughout Los Angeles. Ours is made up of parents whose children attend our school, each with their own hard-knock stories and each wanting something better for their kids and our fearless leader, Nelly--a woman who works for the main NAC organization as a foot solider in some of the poorest areas of LA. She and others go around starting these groups, where they begin as fledgling social groups that eventually blossom into community action groups (hopefully).

Since I am only at Santana once a week, sometimes it feels like a drain, dedicating a full two hours of my eight-hour day to a meeting that isn't even technically associated with the school, but the longer I've attended them, the stronger the bond between myself and the parents has become. This is despite a massive language barrier, misconceptions on both sides regarding culture, communication and lifestyle, and immense poverty that plagues this particular area of the San Fernando Valley.

Days like today force me to view anti-poverty organizations from a different perspective. As a VISTA, I am part of a gigantic network of anti-poverty warriors--or so we are told at Pre-Service Orientation. We're told that we will be breaking down barriers of misunderstanding, that we would open our minds and souls and in so doing, open the minds and souls of those we work with, that we would be helping to build the capacity of these impoverished people to better help themselves. But something about today made me doubt my ability to do that--and that was seeing our NAC meeting truly achieving those objectives with our parents, while I sat among them, absorbing what Spanish I could and doing very little else.

Here I am, attempting to do something spectacular, or at the very least, impact one other person's life, and Nelly is standing across the room actually empowering parents, giving them the tools and support to make the changes they want to see in their community. Parents volunteered to ask for donations from commercial businesses (an integral component of my job) and they have split up into three committees to organize a health fair for March 3 (something other VISTAs have done at their schools).

It's not that I resent even a little bit that they are doing parts of my job, but rather, I resent the entire VISTA network for going about community building in the wrong way.  Communities do not become stronger just because some outsider has been placed in the community to do the work for these people. The community becomes stronger when someone from the community empowers their peers and models behavior and provides the tools and gives direction.

I think VISTAs and the entire ideology behind VISTA has only the best of intentions. But sticking some white girl in a community of people who can't relate does no one any good. Not only that, but our year of capacity-building doesn't provide ongoing support. It doesn't give us the experience with poverty needed to handle some of these crises. We're ill-equipped and that's because PSO and and any ongoing "Professional Development" has ill-prepared us. I worry that it will be the same nonsense with Teach For America (especially after reading all the criticism of TFA).

I'm not unmotivated by these observations, but I must wonder why VISTA still exists if it is a white man's solution to a brown man's problem.

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