Letter Four

Students cross into poor communities with a view of making a difference without actually doing anything sustainable or generally all that helpful. There are examples of domestic misuse of money, time and effort, to be sure, but because international philanthropic efforts are stemmed from more perverse and arguably more dangerous reasoning, I feel that the international issue of detached philanthropy is dangerous for the advancement of entire nations. My project has taught me that a long term focus on communities is necessary for progress, and that focus should start with the whole-hearted commitment of students and other individuals in those communities.

There is nothing worse for the advancement of indigent people than foreigners who take advantage of the lack of domestic investment in these communities. These privileged people travel thousands of miles to foreign countries with the comical idea of being a positive force on the disenfranchised residents who live in these undrawn parts of the world; whose residents’ dark skins mark their separation from the clean civility that is the West; and who also, conveniently enough, don’t know how to take care of themselves.[1] They carry in their minds images of starving kids and pregnant mothers and arrive under a façade created by whatever philanthropy program that they are working under to feed fat-bellied children for half of a summer or educate mothers on contraceptive techniques to ‘hopefully’ ensure that maybe through time these kids will learn how to provide for themselves and their mothers will learn how to stop making so many of these penurious children. But they know that this idea of ‘hoping’ for a better reality for these darker people won’t ever translate to a better reality for them and they will almost certainly try their best to come back next year to do their part again. Then, after their ‘vacation’ ends, they leave, but they make it a point to grab some pictures with these indigenous people for evidence that they do care about indigent persons and as indication for their friends, family and possible employers that they do use their time productively.

Organizations that champion helping deprived residents of deprived countries were created to provide services which are literally reliant on the existence of the less than stellar lives that the people in these poorer communities live under in order for their philanthropic endeavors to be successful. This shows that the entire idea of detached philanthropy not only creates a system that necessitates rations of negligible provisions for any given community until minimal satisfaction is reached but it also leads to arrogating resources away from the governments in these countries which could possibly better create and provide social services for citizens and increase investment in domestic corporations and entrepreneurial endeavors.

I honestly believe that support needs to start at home. Instead of looking east to see what needs fixing we all need to start at our own backyards. I have spent half of the summer understanding why barriers exist between local representatives and their low income and minority constituents, but I only recently realized how important a whole-hearted investment in organizations that both challenge and support governmental services is. Individual commitment in providing long term assistance for marginalized people is more impactful than detached philanthropy and, as evident by domestic NGOs and Non-Profits focused on working with poorer people and their governments rather than for the banal idea of providing short term relief for a long term intractable problem, leads to more positive social change.

I have been fortunate to be in close communication with directors in the Texas Civil Rights Project and I have never found an organization that more beautifully represents disenfranchised people in Texas. Because of TCRP I learned that there are three main fronts in the civil rights litigation battle in Texas. The first is Voting Rights, which has been a huge point of contestation in Texas recently because of a district court judge’s recent ruling that Texas’ 2011 Voter I.D. Law is unconstitutional. Voting rights also ties deeply into the arguably unconstitutional redistricting practices that delegitimize Texas’ electoral representation. The second is Criminal Justice. Texas has had a very bumpy history with criminal justice (since 1998 twenty people have died in Texas’ prisons)[2] and the state is currently fighting a battle on the legality of debtor’s prisons and the inadequate mental health care that currently exists in Texas jails. The last is racial and economic justice with gentrification being more prevalent in places like Austin, lack of sanctuary cities in the state, and the SB4 law that increases the cooperation between police and immigration officers.

The people at the forefront of these civil rights battles in Texas are the same people who put in twenty four hours every day of the week to be able to represent indigent people in court who would not presumably have legal representation and fight as hard as they can to help them legitimately have a voice. They give up the convenience of detached philanthropy and instead put their best foot forward for the possibility of progressive social change. From my conversation with Maureen Milligan, the Chief of Community Prosecution and Community Courts in Dallas, to my talk with Beth Stevens, the Voting Rights Director in Texas Civil Rights Project, the civil rights battle is still alive and well almost a century after Jim Crow era laws and its evolution into de facto political and economic suppression. This fight for civil rights in Texas is far from over from my end and I will focus some of my time during the next few weeks trying to understand criminal rights in Texas by talking with Natalia Cornelio, the Criminal Justice Reform Director in TCRP in Houston. Then I will head back to Dallas to start on my paper on Texas’ contemporary voting rights practices and talk with Kimberly Olson, the Political Field Director in the Texas Organizing Project, and other people who can help me learn more about voting rights and Texas’ history with redistricting.

Detached philanthropy is very attractive because of the convenience but taking the hard route, with a whole-hearted investment in progress, will be the real catalyst for social change.

[1]  In reference to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of darkness” where he repeatedly points out maps that mark Africa as having undrawn parts.  <Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Barnes & Noble. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2017.>

[2] “Fighting for just treatment of incarcerated individuals.” Texas Civil Rights Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2017.

Onuoha Odim is a T’20 Undergraduate and an Ethics Certificate student. He also participated as a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow.

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