beyond cultural competency

part of our first week here at the spanish school is what they call cultural competency lectures (side note: competencia cultural ALSO means cultural competition in spanish, which led to a pretty great misunderstanding with our host dad), which are meant to introduce us to guatemalan culture and also prepare us for working in the various service projects run by the school, including the clinic. we had our first session yesterday, advertised as the history of the spanish school and clinic, as well as some basic background to guatemala and xela.
our fantastic lecturer, Ronnie, is one of the school{s founders, and his lecture was no simple history lesson, but rather a treatise on post-colonialism and the role of service in the developing world! it was awesome on many fronts, but one of the main points that really struck me involved the relative role of huge organizations with tons of short term volunteers vs. small organizations (like the Pop Wuj school) that have fewer, longer-term volunteers who form more profound relationships with the people.                                                                                                                                                                                       the key and interesting difference, in his opinion, is that when the local gente interacted with volunteers from the huge organizations, the interaction was simple: i need this, you give it to me. nada mas. BUT with the small organizations, the deeper relationships formed between the (typically white, upper middle class) volunteers from first world countries and the (typically non-white comparatively poor) local people. these deep relationships may have been agreeable and heartwarming for both parties, but they also reinforced in a way the huge difference in the cultural backgrounds and general life situations between the groups- a difference that he believed was borne out of colonialism. essentially, this meeting of haves and have-nots reinforced the idea that if I have more (money, education, freedom, responsibility to help others), I AM more; and in turn, if I have less, I AM less.                                                                                                                                                              all this was a long way of saying that objectivism is the worst! and shares a basis with racism/colonialism. but the other important point is that a meeting of two different, unequal cultures in the context of service can be very detrimental to the people receiving the service- an idea reminiscent of a study I learned about regarding big buddy programs. young men from lower socioeconomic classes were matched, and one boy from each pair was given a big buddy (pretty much a slightly older boy from a higher socioeconomic class) to just spend time with them, counsel them, etc. Upon follow up several decades later, when compared to their paired controls, the boys who had a big buddy were MUCH worse off- in alsmot every aspect of their lives! worse mortality, more jail time, more divorce, worse careers, less subjectively happy by their report. a hypothesis was that the big buddies tried to instill their values in their little buddies, which may have predisposed them for expectations and values outside their own culture.                                                                                                                                                              these are a lot of random thoughts, but they boil down to one simpler question: coming from a place of privelege (and the money, freedom, education, conscious or unconscious feelings often of superiority that go with it), how can I provide service for the underpriveleged in a way that is not damaging in some way?

because of course, i should do no harm.

no answers yet.



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