A few months ago, I was talking with Diana Skelton, a member of the ATD Fourth World International Leadership Team. We were sitting by the window in a small bar and discussing the benefits of intercultural exchange across ATD Fourth World’s many teams.
The benefits seemed obvious to me–being exposed to different cultures and perspectives broadens our horizons and understanding of the world. People living in poverty have fewer opportunities and resources to travel or discover other places. The intercultural exchanges created by ATD Fourth World are invaluable to building a network of solidarity across some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Diana pointed out a nuance to the intercultural exchanges ATD does that I had not considered. When two people living in poverty on opposite sides of the world share their experiences face-to-face, there is an opportunity to discover similarities that exist despite dramatic cultural differences. This discovery can point to a shared struggle that binds them together. If a person living in the projects of New York City can relate to a person living under a bridge in the Philippines, there is proof that their experience of poverty may be caused by something bigger than individual choices and circumstances: ‘I am not alone. It’s not just me.’
This was a subtle, but important revelation for me and it brought me back to my sophomore year of college. I had just started studying sociology and I was enthralled. I had found a school of thought which gave me the language and theory to analyze the world around me through the lens of systems, patterns, and mechanisms. Poverty, inequality, racism, and everything in between could be explained by looking at the structures of our society and how they interacted and impacted individual players in that society. I remember thinking, ‘if only everyone in the world could take this sociology class, all of our problems would be solved.’ Of course, that was only after my first class.
Many classes and many discoveries later, I knew how foolish that thought had been. The discipline had introduced me to what I originally saw as an empowering realization–poverty is not the cause of individual choices and behavior, but originates from complex and entrenched systems perpetuated by…(the sophomore sociology student in me could go on and on). Leaving college, I was just as confused about my path in life as any recent graduate, but I did know one thing – I wanted to help people. I wanted to help people living in poverty feel empowered to change a situation that was never their fault to begin with.
Working with ATD Fourth World, I came to understand how disempowering my original motivations for social change could be: ‘It is not my fault! It is the system’s fault!… Well, now what do I do?’ Trying to convince or ‘teach’ people living in poverty this line of thinking is not only ineffective, but patronizing and misguided.
What is effective is the nuance Diana described: “Yes, it’s not my fault alone. The system is also to blame. And, I am most certainly not alone in my struggle.’ And then, to foster the exchange and solidarity of people living in poverty through communities and intercultural exchanges, like the ones ATD Fourth World does.
I do wonder where I would have ended up had I continued on a path dependent on theory rather than practice. Because, even though systems and definitions and mechanisms are helpful for providing a framework of analysis, the particulars of each human being are what make the work of activism essential, rewarding, and important.