How I learned to break down the barriers to solidarity.
By Abbey Vogel, sophomore at John Carroll University in Ohio and an Oxfam America 2013 CHANGE Leader. Each year Oxfam’s CHANGE Initiative trains a select group of 50 US college students to join the fight against global poverty and injustice.
I am a privileged person. I am Caucasian, born in the United States, and I grew up in a homogenous suburban neighborhood. My two attentive parents are middle-class and I attended Catholic school with other Caucasian, middle-class kids. I have never experienced a shortage of food, hugs, or education.
Before Oxfam, a part of me viewed that privilege as a burden that mandated a life of tangible, sustainable global change. Therefore, I spent high school and college searching for a way to ease my troubled conscience. I founded projects to help hungry children, to send school supplies to people in developing countries, and to do community service days in East Cleveland. I was using my privilege to help people, but I was approaching systemic change from an “us and them” mentality.
Then, I attended the CHANGE [student leadership] training. Oxfam talks about poverty in a whole new way. By approaching this issue from a rights-based perspective, I finally began to see my privilege not as a barrier to solidarity, but rather as an opportunity to overcome a traditional understanding of how the world works. Instead of viewing people as having “nothing” or as being “poor” and “needy,” waiting to be helped by people of “privilege”, I cast off this language and mentality as deeply flawed, because it promoted an emphasis on our differences, rather than our interrelatedness.
After the training, I began to comprehend the following quote by Lila Watson when mission workers came to her village: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because you understand that your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us walk together.”
After CHANGE, I finally understood that we belong to each other in a more complete way than I had ever acknowledged. Until the barriers between those who have and those who have not crumble with the efforts of those who have love, we will be stuck in a society of inequality that does not promote any person’s well-being. There needs to exist a love that transcends the labels that our society is so eager to apply.
Oxfam taught me to stop yearning for social justice because I felt a burden of privilege, and to start yearning for it because I believe in the mission. Now, my heart aches for equality because I recognize that I will never be liberated if I continue to promote an international system characterized by institutional poverty. Looking back, this is the lesson that has been profoundly present in my life since the CHANGE training, and this seemingly small intellectual shift has made all the difference.