Yesterday was one of the more frustrating days I’ve had in quite some time. I spent most of the day at We Day with a group of students, about 20 of 18,000 others. We Day essentially boiled down to a lot of screaming, crappy pop music, and massive advertisement; that is to say there was very little substance. We Day, while having good intentions and being full of positivity, was just that, intentions. In this world intentions are not enough. It is not enough to simply shout you will make a difference; it is not enough to scream you want freedom. Good thoughts will not change the world.
We Day is a feel good moment, on some level that is what it is meant to be. However, Craig and Marc Kielburger, the founders of Free the Children, the non-profit We Day is a product of, purport to be about much more than that, they purport to be a movement, at some level they are. It is worth asking then: What is this movement about? The answer: the satisfying of white liberal guilt.
I have never been more overwhelmed by the desperate need to satisfy guilt then at We Day. The entire thing is a giant fundraiser for Free the Children. The children that need freeing: Africans and other young people from developing nations. See, they need us to come spread our privilege. At least that was the overwhelming message: we have resources and should share them.
At its most superficial level there is nothing wrong with this stance: helping others in need is a widely held characteristic of “good” people. However, only a slightly deeper examination reveals the extremely problematic elements of such a platform. It is absurdly paternalistic and condescending. In order for a country to be underdeveloped one must subscribe to a certain definition of developed. In this world developed means open markets for Western multinational corporations to exploit. To accept this as the “way things are in this modern world,” as one Free the Children worker told me in a conversation, stands in stark contrast to the stated message of freedom and equality. At its base it is saying the way we do things is better and the “right” way. It says we will “teach” you , Kenyan farmer, how to raise animals, how to farm and how to conduct business, as the same employee told me later on in that same conversation. When I challenged him as to why there was a need to “teach” Kenyans, who have been surviving for centuries before Free the Children and Western intervention, there was only silence. He was only able to notice symptoms not diagnose diseases. Beyond that he couldn’t understand why anybody would be critical of such a mission. Colonizers are so benevolent.
Beyond the condescending paternalism there was the erasing of the myriad issues right here in America, shit, right here in Minneapolis and, indeed, in the Excel Center yesterday. I was there with students from a low-income school and I myself come from a working class background. It didn’t take us very long to realize We Day was not aimed at us. Literally everything was about poverty and problems in other countries, and the solution was to give money to Free the Children. When asked about how low income schools could participate the answer was “well I guess they could fundraise.” I left wondering who exactly would be providing the funds to be raised? One of the speakers, perplexed, asked the crowd if they knew that in low income neighborhoods they don’t read. She said “ I know we can’t imagine that because we have books flowing off the shelves but they don’t read!” (emphasis mine)
Beyond the blatant manifestations of privilege, like the one just mentioned, the erasure of poverty and problems right here in our own communities allows for the wealthy white liberals, who dominate We Day, to feel good about themselves, to satisfy their guilt, and still maintain their position in society. We Day maintained the myth that there is nothing systemically flawed with our economy and society at large. And, in true colonizer fashion, the United States and other Western countries, whose colonizing, oppression, and exploitation caused the problems in the so called “developing countries” We Day and Free the Children are so passionate about solving, escape indictment. Again the conversation with the Free the Children employee is illuminating: when asked what Free the Children’s analysis of the IMF and World Bank were the response was “we don’t worry about things like that.” No, why would an organization dedicated to global movement building, freedom, and global equality concern itself with such a monumental task of developing an analysis of policy. That’s doing too much.
In favor of asking these tough questions the Jonas Brothers and Carly Rae Jepsen performed a couple songs. There were dramatic lights and lots of corporate sponsored goodies to give away. We were encouraged to “Adopt a Village” and, just to make sure they left no doubt about how much they care about those poor black and brown babies, there were plenty of pictures of white girls hugging brown kids! If that doesn’t scream love, freedom, and equality I don’t know what does!
We Day brought together 18,000 well intentioned young people and adults under the guise of creating real social change, of creating a movement. Sadly, just wishing for those things will not make them possible. What makes those things possible is asking tough questions about policy decisions and power distribution. Bright lights and famous people do nothing to raise the minimum wage, to stop global warming, to end the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. The corporate sponsors of We Day are not invested in altering the distribution of wealth in this country: the number one factor for the poverty that all these white liberals were so intent on alleviating. I wish happy thoughts, screaming teenagers, pop musicians, and a desire for good did bring about the manifestations of such things, but what I was reminded of yesterday was that they do not, only work does. Time to go to work!
Oh! and did I mention Barbara Pierce Bush, the daughter of George W Bush, spoke after being introduced as having social justice in her DNA! I wonder what New Orleans would say about that?