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Saviorism and Advocacy

Trump’s recent belittling of our nation’s experience of the COVID-19 virus through his toxic posturing and suggestion that his experience was in any way similar to that of an average American Citizen brought up a lot of emotions for me. As a person who has always had access to healthcare and who has not lost anyone in my family to the Corona Virus, I know that Trump’s experience of the pandemic is nowhere near what mine has been. If this is as true as I know it to be, then it must also be true that I cannot even begin to understand just how far away Trump’s experience is from that of those individuals and communities that have been disproportionately affected by this global crisis. Both of these truths have left me thinking a lot about what it means to be an advocate or an ally and how we might compromise one in the name of the other.

My path to Clinical Psychology began with advocacy work. I had grown up in a working-class household where we were taught to do what we could to be charitable-- not because we had excess but because we had more than what we absolutely needed and this simply was not the case for many others. I would often ask my mom about why it was that some people did not have what they needed and would usually get an answer that was some sort of iteration of the fact that God trusted us to use the blessings given to us to care for others.

This message of redistribution through charity stuck with me throughout my formative years. I even got a wrist tattoo in college of the verse from Matthew Chapter 10: “Freely you have received, so freely give.” My drive to give back was fueled by an understanding that my own good fortune was the product of divine grace and that it came with a charge to pay this grace forward to those who were less fortunate.

This worldview moved me to advocacy work—both globally and locally. I felt that it was my duty to use my privilege to help those who had not received as freely as I had. I was well aware that much of what I had was given and not earned and thought about this as having sort of “lucked into” a life where I could prosper.

This feeling of needing to atone for my own good fortune through saving others lead me to spend a year working with victims of domestic violence in Bolivia. Having just graduated from college with a very bare-bones minor in Spanish, the “help” I offered these women often came in the form of needing them to teach me Spanish and wondering what I would actually do if one of their partners came looking for them when I was their accompaniment to the market place. One time, one particularly kind group of women even fixed the birthday cake I was trying to make my roommate after I ran into my room and burst into tears because I did not know how to bake things at high altitudes.

I returned to the US as a “helper” whose Spanish was “good enough” to work as an advocate for survivors of homicide victims. Before my arrival, families whose loved ones had been murdered that did not speak English had been receiving information about support services that had been adapted using google translate. That is, of course, if the language they spoke that was not English was Spanish. Anyone who needed information provided in languages other than Spanish or English had to figure that out on their own. Spanish-speaking families who had been patient and determined enough to follow through on accessing the services they needed to access the resources that were rightfully theirs were met with well-meaning staff who took a few years of Spanish in high school, probably. As they began working with me, these families showed as much kindness and patience to me as had the women who had fixed my cake. They waited attentively as I searched for the right words to say and thanked me for all of my efforts as I tried to understand the confusing and complex process of grief while navigating a system of “justice” that is just as complex and confusing in a language I could only sort of understand. I did this all, of course, under the assumption that I was the one leading the charge—helping these families who could not help themselves.

I soothed my existential angst around my privilege by telling myself that I would use it to help people navigate the complicated systems they needed to access in order to have the opportunity to build the kind of life I had “lucked into.” I got a kind of satisfaction from being able to use my voice to speak to those in power, imagining myself as a sort of helpful guide who knew how to speak the local language (if not knowing how to actually do so with the people for whom I was working.) I believed I was doing my part to even the playing field by taking things off of people’s plates who already had more to manage than could be expected of anyone.

In working as an advocate, I never stopped to think about why I was able to speak this systems language in a way that my clients could not. People in power were able to hear me, not because of my good intentions and fiery commitment to justice, but because I looked and talked the way that they wanted. I was navigating systems for people, not because sharing their burden helped them to move forward, but because the systems were set up to be accessible by people like me. Perhaps more importantly, I never stopped to think about the fact that these people were helping me to learn and understand their language as I rushed forward and centered myself throughout the process without being willing to try to do the same.

I’ve thought a lot about this balance between being present for individual pain and suffering and working to see, address, and dismantle the systems that cause and maintain this suffering in the first place . How do we best meet the needs of those who are sick or the grief of those who have lost family members, jobs, or homes, without becoming distracted from a system that allows our president to work to strip away federally funded healthcare while simultaneously benefitting from this care after refusing to pay the taxes that make it possible?

I think often about the metaphor of a woman working to save babies who kept floating past her in the river and finally having the realization that she should walk upstream to figure out how they kept ending up in the river to begin with. While the lesson seems simple, I have spent many years grappling with the question: in what world would I walk away from a drowning baby? Now more than ever, though, I am left struggling with a new question: Is my firm resolve that I would not let a baby drown based more in my white saviorism than in my commitment to caring for others? Is my struggle to direct my attention away from the individual and toward the system based in the reality that none of the babies in the river look like me and even more importantly, that the person tossing them into the river likely does?

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