I started a bit of furore.
It was all a bit ridiculous. People getting exercised about something I’d said when they plainly had no idea what I’d said. You’d think I’d be sick of it, but I’m revving up for more, and I’ll tell you why shortly.
A bit of context, first: 4 years ago, almost to the day, I looked in the pantry at a women’s refuge. I’d asked first, to see what we could do about food. I was appalled. 50 tins of tomatoes in that pantry, and quite a few expired tins of chickpeas too. And then in another cupboard, more tinned tomatoes. All expired. It struck me then as a bloody ludicrous thing for there to be in the pantry of a house where women were living who were in varying states of crisis and upset, and I wanted to throw them away. My friend Gloria was appalled that I would think of doing that, so I got some to her and she made the most exquisite spaghetti sauce (which the women ate communally).
On we went, and I decided that we would provide as much food for the women in that refuge as we were able. A givealittle page was started, we went shopping 4 times a year, and then moved on to just making sure the women had access to supermarket gift cards. The evolution, as you can see, was from PROVIDING for the women to making sure they could provide for themselves. Agency, and freedom, at a time in their lives when they hadn’t been used to any for a while. My thinking changed as my work and relationships with them progressed, and I tweaked the systems we had in place, with feedback from Kris, who ran the place, as to what would work best.
They never asked for tinned tomatoes when we went shopping for them, and I never saw many of them cook with them – and I did cooking lessons with them, so I knew what they liked to cook, each one. One of them LOVED cooking with tinned tomatoes, most did not. And certainly none of them cooked at all in their first few days there, if they’d come directly from the violence that had shattered their lives.
So. Was this ever about tinned tomatoes? No. It was about trusting that people know what they want and need and providing access to those resources for them, so that they get to make their own choices. And having a relationship with the people you’re supporting so that if you’re ever in a position where they need/want you to provide them with something and not get it for themselves, you know what it is that they’re likely to need/want, and make your judgements on that.
Either way, the point was this: the person who drives the resourcing should be the person who needs the support, and not the people driving it.
So how do we change the paradigm? How do we start looking at giving people agency?
Let’s start with the language. Language is incredibly important because the “wrong” language can make people feel even more “less than” than they may already feel. More judged. More of a failure.
At the moment, there’s a lot of buzzwords and phrases around:
- children in poverty
- feed the need
- the less fortunate
I’ve been around this stuff for a while now, and I’ve always used the words “living in poverty” but recently, I’ve started using the term “deliberately under resourced”. Because that is, in my opinion. what it is. All the other words/terms are simply byproducts of that under resourcing.
A low wage economy, prohibitive rents, benefits that are set to be deliberately unliveable.
And, even amongst liberals there’s this idea that people are down on their luck. No. No, they’re not down on their luck. For the people I work with, they never had any luck because the system is set to shut them out. Deliberately. There’s no acknowledgement of it, but that’s what it is.
And why are they where they are in the first place? It may be different for a lot of people who are struggling, but for the people I work with, by and large, this stuff is generational, and it’s to do with – not to put too fine a point on it – colonisation. Loss of land, disruption of culture, prejudice finding good jobs and good housing. All of those things which started many many years ago and have continued to this day. And how do you change that? How do you even begin to fix that? You acknowledge it’s happened and you strive to put it right, and in the case of The Aunties, my belief is that we start by understanding that whatever support someone asks for, and we resource them to take advantage of that support, that is what they’re owed. Because most of you reading this will be perfectly comfortable. I certainly am. This is not about white guilt. This is about recognising that the system that has privileged me by dint of the family I was born into, is the same one that has shat on the women I work with. It’s as simple as that.
We can also shift the paradigm by thinking about what charity actually means. I don’t like the word “charity” – it doesn’t describe what the Aunties do, and it’s demeaning to the people we support, and resource. We don’t dispense charity – we are a whānau, a community, supporting and resourcing other members of our whānau. I’ve always said people need shit, we get it for them. But it’s always been a bit more complicated than that. Because you have stuff other people need, you get it to me, and ostensibly I give it to them, who need it, right? Kind of. What actually happens if that you offer me stuff, and I decide who can use it because I have a relationship with them, or their social worker, and in the cases where I know the person directly, I ask them. Or the stuff gets to the storage unit, and I don’t even ask them what they need anymore. I just tell them what’s there, they come and get what they need or want. There’s no middle person, it’s just them making their own decisions.
Because we’re not in communist Russia. When you go to the supermarket you take what you need, don’t you? And there’s a whole range of choices. Well, the way I work things is that the stuff is there, all sorts of stuff, and you do the same thing. Except it’s free. A number of charities have started doing this with food – they call it the food pantry approach. And some have done a Christmas Loft, where clients get to choose their own kids presents. Because, let’s face it, when someone else has wrapped the present, and put an age and gender on it, that’s a bit shit. And I think that we need to move away from this model of charity where you get what you’re given. It’s disempowering and designed to make the person recieving feel like a piece of poo. Because you have to be grateful. And here’s one of the other things I want to talk about……
Why should you be grateful for something you never asked for, and that you have no hand in deciding whether you get it or not? And why would you be grateful, even if you do need, say, towels, when they’re not even good enough for a dog? Or they’re not the colour you like, best? Or they’re just a bit threadbare?
No. I say no. Enough.
I’ve always said: give with love. I want to change that up. Gift with love. Resource with intent, and in a specific and client based – hate the word, it’ll do for the moment – way. Bring the focus back to the person who’s getting what they need, and not the person who’s giving it. Because, and here’s something else to think about, there is a huge power imbalance in all of this. You have something they need, they feel the pressure to be grateful. Power imbalance.
I know about this stuff because I get it all the time. I have to stop women from being over the top with gratitude – I’ve started talking to people I work with about their agency. That I understand that I’m bringing/getting them stuff and so they feel like they have to repay me with their story, or opening their lives to me. No. They don’t. And when I say it, they say: but I would tell anyone else this.
I happen to be someone people tell stuff, deep stuff, to anyway, and quite quickly. And if people are comfortable doing that, that’s fine. But when we have the discussion about it, and that stuff is clarified, we can be on a more even keel – though because of who I am and why I initially meet them, that’s still there. I’m always aware of it, and I always have been. So I want to shift that by having this conversation with other people who work in this field. How do you add some balance? How do your clients? For me, it’s about sharing about my life, and who I am.
How about, then, instead of dashing just to resource people – getting them what they need based on what they’ve asked for, and relationships built – we also, as communities of people who make it our business to concern ourselves with supporting other people when they’re struggling , think about that power imbalance, why it exists, and how we can do our jobs in a way that redresses that? Invites people to take back some power and have a say in their own resourcing? Indeed, build them into the very core of our communities. Their voices, and thoughts. Their concerns, and dreams. We can do that.
And I’m not fond of the idea of helping people. Making a difference. Changing people’s lives. Only they can do that. We can support them to do whatever they need us to support them in, but we don’t change their lives. We may touch their lives, we may impact their lives in some way. But that’s all. This is about agency. Supporting people, in The Aunties case, in a number of ways, while they still live in, or have left, domestic violence.
We can move from a model of charity where we act as parental, to a model where we act as equals, as much as is possible. Empower people to do whatever they need to do to bring them out of those struggles, if that’s what they want to do.
I know these are new and very challenging ideas to many people. And I know this because even the suggestion that charities are allowed to say no to donations made people very angry. Completely spun some people out. There was talk of ingratitude. Yes, there was.
And I hear, over and over, what if there were no charities? What if we had a society that didn’t need charities? In my opinion, we will always need communities who help each other out, support each other, and share resources. It is, after all, what it means to be a community. You can call those charities, but I know which word I prefer. Which idea is much more supportive and empowering to people who are struggling, in any way.
So I’m asking you all, for the New Year, to consider my thoughts. Consider them as Xmas gifts to you. I know this model of charity can work, because The Aunties are already largely doing it. I invite you to join us, whether you run a charity, work for a charity, or support one.
We don’t need our community to be grateful. We just need our community to be okay. All of us. To be okay. We can do that.
With gratitude to Dr Jess Berentson Shaw for her feedback, and suggestions.