Service is a great way to give back and learn more about communities outside your own. However, if in the process of giving back, you cross the line from an ally to a savior, service can be more harmful than helpful.
Many who choose to work for these fields ultimately do it because they have a passion for the respective causes. However, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
Passion can act as last minute fuel when all other reserves have gone empty. But when that passion turns you from an ally of those you serve to their savior, the passion may be burning a little too bright.
An ally acts in service to a community or cause, working in close collaboration with others.
Allies understand the importance of community-led initiatives in the social sector. In contrast, a savior takes an authoritative position, believing they have all the answers and know what is best.
1. Remember, it’s not about you.
The purpose of service is just that. To serve! It’s not about glory or praise nor is it about being the bright hero of an otherwise dreary backdrop. The focus of your service should always be the cause, mission, and how to best help those affected.
To think about it another way, imagine your service as a best-selling novel. In this scenario, you’re only a supporting character. The lead roles should be occupied by those you’re helping. They’re the main characters.
If you want to know how not to make the best-seller about those you serve (and I hope that’s not the case), check out Barbie Savior’s Instagram account. She’s problematic to say the least.
2. Photos say a thousand words.
Service can be transformative. Whether you’re working at a food pantry or rebuilding homes post-disaster, these are moments that will have a significant impact. It’s natural to want to take photos for the memories!
There are a few things to consider when building your image inventory though.
First, do the photos mostly feature you? Your photos shape the story that’s being told, so consider how you want to tell it. Is the story about you, what you did, and how you did it or is there a larger narrative which others could learn from?
Yes, you may be tempted to jump in on a group photo. Nothing wrong with that! Make sure to stop and reflect on your placement in the photo. Are you standing in the center of the group, naturally drawing a viewer’s eyes?
Next, how are the environment and people in the photos being portrayed? We’ve all seen the flies-in-the eyes. But have we questioned whether consent was given from those photographed or whether the images we’re seeing are only one part of a story?
South African comedian Trevor Noah says, “It’s almost like they don’t shoot [the commercials] without the fly, you know? It’s almost like the fly has become the watermark of a starving African.”
For more information on being photo conscious, check out our Photo Guidelines here.
3. You’re a supporter, not a manager.
When working in affected or at-risk communities, it’s easy to go in thinking you have all the answers.
You don’t. For multiple reasons.
One: Locals, especially local leaders, are going to have a better understanding of the community than someone new to the region.
Two: What worked in one place may not work in another. The method you used in Sri Lanka may not work well in rural Japan.
Third: No one person has all the answers.
When a project is community-led, its implementers are accountable to the vision and priorities set by the community. They have local voices in the lead and use adaptable, feedback-driven decision making. They celebrate and mobilize local assets, and they collaborate and share knowledge with others to achieve systemic change. [Learn more about how your projects and organization can become more community-led.]
4. Remember all people have the ability to bounce back.
Humans are naturally resilient creatures. We’ve experienced floods, storms, volcanic eruptions, and much more for thousands of years. Yet, we’re still here and ready to rebuild our foundations if we must.
That said, when working with people recently struck by a tragedy, recognize their resilience and perseverance. Whether you showed up or not, their lives would continue. They would rebuild their homes, families, and themselves—perhaps over a different period of time or to a different standard—with or without you.
5. Survivors voices matter more than your own.
Picture this. You’re at a march in support of a marginalized group. A news reporter approaches you, mic and camera at the ready, and asks for a quote. What do you do?
Ideally, you would direct the reporter to a member of the marginalized group. Your role as an ally is to direct attention to the survivors, not yourself. What better way to accomplish this goal than having them speak for themselves?
Of course, several barriers can come into play such as language, stage fright, or accessibility (e.g. no one from the community is present or the community is located in a remote area).
If necessary, you can act as a translator and position yourself outside the camera’s view. You’re still acting as an ally, overcoming the language barrier, and placing the spotlight where it should be all with a single decision.
Referencing the other examples I used above, if all else fails and you’re the only option, do it. Never miss an opportunity to push your cause or mission. In this specific situation, language use is extremely important. Use your justice sword to slash down any misconceptions, as well as defend the people you’re marching with and for. But you should clearly state you’re an ally, not an affected person. Make sure you continuously refer to the affected population and their community leaders. Focus less on your feelings, more on facts. Lastly, refrain from using “I,” “me,” or “my” as much as possible.
Because in the end, it’s not about you. It’s about affected people using their own voices and their own swords of justice.