I got mad sometime in 2004 or so, when the war in Afghanistan became less about KILLING OSAMA BIN LADEN and more about “let’s paint some schools there to show ‘them’ Americans, despite dropping bombs on them for decades, are nice people they should love and emulate right down to endless re-runs of ‘Friends.'”
I got mad because on a near-daily basis I spent time in schools that had literal holes in the roof and doors that wouldn’t stay shut unless they were padlocked, where in one classroom kids wore parkas and another the windows were open in January because the heating was just … like that.
Why can’t we paint THOSE schools, I would ask, and silly girl. Honestly.
We can wrap our heads around charity far, far away, much more easily than we can here at home. This gets to some of why:
Winfrey, who devoted five years to creating the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls outside Johannesburg, also said of the assistance she has given at home, “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there.”
In America, she says, “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”
We have this idea that there’s a way people should behave, properly grateful for the things they should get, and when we’re confronted with the fact that people are PEOPLE, and messy, and don’t act like we think they should, we throw up our hands and throw in the towel.
Forgetting that, of course, we owe one another not just our resources and our care but also our absolute understanding that once something leaves our hands it’s not up to us anymore what people do with it.
If we see the same panhandler on the corner every weekend looking drunker and twitchier no matter how much money we give him, we start to think he’s just spending our money on a high. But if we give to the faraway, if we do the mission trip and come home and only see the newsletter the mission sends which is designed to make us feel good and keep giving, well, then we know our time was well-spent.
These are both assumptions, and they’re dangerous and damaging, as is the constant drumbeat that “government” wastes our money on “welfare” and “those people,” superimposed over images of a Black person somewhere, sometime, breaking something. In other words, the entire Fox oeuvre. The church missions are to the Developing World, not down the block. We are conditioned, by now, to make those assumptions, to see in care for others the faces not of our friends and neighbors but of an “other.”
And while I’d like to believe the pandemic would change that, any relief money received is likely to be accompanied by a flood of those same FOX NEWS WATCHDOG INVESTIGATES stories about “people” spending it on jewelry or something, sourced to an anecdote from an anonymous Costco employee in, say, Ohio.
The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago. We have been on a treadmill of short-term fixes, pretending that if we just get the right test, the right incentives, put the right pressure on teachers and students, they will achieve what is good for them, like it or not. But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.
If we’d had a real functioning government we’d have spent this year doing unsexy things like upgrading the HVAC systems in every school in the land and doubling the pay of every custodian. Making sure the windows all open, and are screened.
But it’s hard to make that glossy enough to goose donors for cash. We can’t have a conference about it and design software and metrics. And the kids it’ll benefit likely won’t even notice except that they’ll, you know, still be alive and healthy, so you can see why it’s far more attractive to parachute a pallet of cash into someplace far away and never ask where it really ends up.